We test two of the latest Wi-Fi VoIP phones to see how wireless
Internet calling works.
By Jeff Bertolucci, special to PC World
Internet phones are going wireless. Internet phone vendors have merged
wireless networking with voice over Internet Protocol phone service to
create the Wi-Fi VoIP phone. This promising-if somewhat rough around
the edges-technology brings wireless calling to Net phones.
A Wi-Fi VoIP phone is a handset that looks a lot like a cell phone,
only it sends and receives audio signals via a wireless network. It
works within Wi-Fi's transmission range, which isn't very far. In our
tests, Wi-Fi VoIP calls abruptly disconnected whenever we ventured 70
to 100 feet from our wireless router.
But, you say, you already have a cell phone. Why should you consider a
Wi-Fi VoIP phone? Well, for some callers, VoIP is a whole lot
cheaper. Let's say you're on the road and dread paying those
outrageous cell phone roaming charges. With your Wi-Fi VoIP phone, you
simply enter a free wireless hotspot and make a call. If your VoIP
calling plan provides unlimited minutes to the U.S. and Canada, your
call is essentially free. If you're calling internationally, you'll
pay low VoIP rates, often as little as 3 cents per minute to
Europe. And with VoIP, there are no roaming charges.
Wi-Fi VoIP handsets are already available from some VoIP providers,
including BroadVoice and Net2Phone, as well as from hardware retailers
such as ZyXel. Siemens will sell a Wi-Fi handset later this
year. Vonage, the biggest VoIP startup, plans to introduce a Wi-Fi
VoIP phone before the end of the year.
The handsets are not difficult to use: If you can use a cell phone,
you've got the skills necessary to work a Wi-Fi VoIP phone. To make a
call, you key in a number and press Send. Calls are routed onto the
public-switched phone network via your VoIP carrier. The handsets can
also accept incoming calls; the phone number is likely the same as
your home VoIP line.
You need to have an account with a VoIP provider, and you need to make
sure that your handset works with the company's service. In most
cases, the handset works as part of your existing account, and the
service is included in the monthly fee you already pay. If you don't
already have a VoIP account, you can sign up for service when you
purchase a handset.
Initially, Wi-Fi VoIP should appeal to people calling internationally,
and to travelers who want to avoid roaming fees.
"A lot of people who travel may not have robust minute plans, and
they'll find this very useful," says IDC research manager Will
Stofega. He used a Wi-Fi VoIP phone during a recent trip to
Montreal. "The savings were incredible," Stofega says.
Don't confuse a Wi-Fi VoIP handset with a cordless VoIP phone, such as
the Uniden UIP1868, a 5.8-GHz unit designed for Packet8
subscribers. (Uniden makes an identical model for Vonage and other
VoIP providers.) The UIP1868 includes a base station that plugs
directing into a broadband connection or router, and supports up to
ten cordless handsets. The difference is that a Wi-Fi VoIP phone works
anywhere there's a free wireless access point, whereas the cordless
handset works only near its base station.
We tested two Wi-Fi VoIP phones: the UT Starcom F1000, which we used
with BroadVoice's VoIP service, and the Net2Phone VoiceLine XJ200. (We
have previously reviewed Net2Phone's earlier model, the XJ100.)
Both are promising devices, but they're not ready for the mainstream.
Battery life is poor: The XJ200 kept conking out after 4 to 5 hours of
standby-yes, standby-time, during which we made maybe 10 to 15 minutes
of calls. The F1000 did much better, with about 33 hours of standby
time, but that pales in comparison to today's average cell phone,
which goes days between charges.
Another tech issue needs to be addressed: call handoffs from one
wireless access point to another. If you move from one hotspot to
another, your call gets dropped.
"You can't roam between access points," acknowledges Net2Phone
spokesperson Sarah Hofstetter.
Furthermore, Wi-Fi VoIP phones don't work in fee-based,
password-protected hotspots, such as a McDonald's or Starbucks that
offers wireless access. For a list of wireless hotspots worldwide
(free and fee), go to PCWorld.com's Hotspot Finder.
Setup may be tricky for Wi-Fi novices too. You'll need to know whether
your wireless LAN uses encryption, and if so, what kind (64-bit or
128-bit). In addition, you'll have to input your LAN's security code
into the phone, a task that allows the handset to run on your network.
At first glance, Net2Phone's slim Wi-Fi handset looks like your
average cell phone. At 5 inches long, it easily fits in a coat pocket
or handbag. Its 112-by-64-pixel LCD is backlit a cool shade of blue
and is easy to read. The phone includes all the features you'd
want-voice mail, caller ID, call forwarding, and call blocking-and its
$159 price is reasonable. Then again, if you want a combo camera
phone/MP3 player, look elsewhere.
Our main gripe is the XJ200's battery life, which at less than 5 hours
is way too short. We found ourselves recharging the phone daily; in
fact, we even reserved a spot on our strip outlet for the XJ200's AC
adapter. That said, the phone looks good, and its audio quality rivals
that of a comparably priced cell handset.
This handset, which we received from VoIP service provider BroadVoice,
costs $100 (after $40 rebate) and easily surpasses the XJ200 in
battery life, lasting 33 standby hours in our tests. It's slim like
the XJ200 (only three-quarters of an inch thick) and only 4 inches
long. It's downright petite: too petite, actually. We had to use the
tips of our fingernails to press the tiny number keys.
The F1000 also supports voice mail, caller ID, and other
essentials. Its screen controls are fairly intuitive, the
orange-backlit LCD was bright and easy to read, and audio quality was
as good as the XJ200's.
Our biggest complaint wasn't with the F1000, but with BroadVoice's
VoIP phone service. Audio quality was terrible whenever we downloaded
streaming video on our PC. Words were garbled and sentences were
clipped. By comparison, Net2Phone's quality stayed the same during
Our advice: Save your money for the next generation of dual-mode
cell/Wi-Fi phones, which are 6 to 12 months away, according to
Net2Phone's Hofstetter. These devices will provide the best of both
worlds: cell and Wi-FI VoIP access. We'll wait.
Copyright (c) 2005 PC World Communications, Inc.
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