Netgear's SPH101 - the world's first Skype WiFi phone - made its UK debut yesterday afternoon at a products-showcase for over a dozen of Skype's hardware partners. The Netgear is about the same size as most full-featured mobile phones and lets you to make and receive Skype calls from any wireless router or any access point that doesn't require a web-based log in or authentication - with no need at all for a PC.
Naturally, it has phone books built in for Skype contacts and it also offers all the features you'd typically get when using Skype with a computer.
Skype sophisticates would give their right arms to own one - though the price they'll be expected to pay when it arrives in the UK, hopefully in August, will be considerably less onerous - around £140.
Although the Netgear was the most revolutionary piece of kit at the show - and the undoubted star - it wasn't the only product to shine. US Robotics and Philips each had an alternative - and cheaper - way of delivering cable-free Skyping, though these work only via PCs to which their bridge boxes connect by USB.
The US Robotic product, going under the snappy name of the USB Telephone Adapter (model 9620), is a USB box that sits between a PC and any conventional telephone - wired or the base-station of a DECT cordless.
Paired with a DECT phone, it lets you make and take Skype calls away from the PC - though the computer does need to be running. It might well be seen by stay-at-home non-road-warriors as a more logical solution than Netgear's - the more so since it can be bought right now for under £60 including VAT and delivery.
Philips' solution - the VOIP321 - is slightly more expensive than the US Robotics 9620 but, at under £80, is still considerably cheaper than the Netgear SPH101. The extra £15 or £20, though, buys you a DECT phone, so the premium would be well worth paying for users without their own DECT phones. And Philips sells a second version, for around £110, that comes with two DECT handsets.
On of the best-value products being shown was D-Link's Skype USB Phone Adapter (DPH-50U). This arrived a week or so ago and looks to have much the same feature-set as the US Robotics 9620 even though available for well under £40.
Skype, though, is about more than just making voice calls and this was reflected by the showings from a number of other companies, notably Logitech and Creative Labs. Logitech was debuting two web-cams with Skype branding - one at £20 and the other £50 and each handling audio as well as video.
The cheaper product - QuickCam Chat for Skype - has 640x480 resolution for video and stills and is supplied with a separate headset carrying a button microphone. The camera element has what's described as a "universal monitor clip" and this is said to make it suitable for use with desktop PCs - with CRT or LCD monitors - and notebooks.
The £30 premium for the more expensive model, the QuickCam Communicate STX for Skype, seems a bit stiff to us, but Logitech says it's certain that people will pay the extra for the benefits that buys. There seems to be three key advantage.
Still image quality is claimed to be better (though the 1.3 Megapixel resolution is via software interpolation not by having a huge number of extra real pixels); sound is said to be crisper, clearer and echo-free (thanks to RightSound technology, whatever that is); and low-light image quality is reckoned to be superior as well, thanks to RightLight technology. In addition, the £50 model comes with HP PhotoSmart Essential software that's said to allows users to capture images easily, edit with special effects and output to printers.
Creative was showing the soon-to-arrive Live! Cam Voice. This web cam has twin built-in mics and 'Directional Live! Audio' technology that together are used to get rid of most of the background noise that's typically picked up when Skyping from noisy environments.
The trick - and it's to do with having two mics built into the cam, rather than the usual single mic - is for the controller software to be able, in effect, to focus on the user's voice, thus eliminating what's going on around.
We had a quick try and there definitely was a noticeable improvement but although the background noise was largely zapped, the voice sounded rather metallic. Seems odd, though, that the bundle, which comes with a headset, also includes a lapel mic.
On the plus side, it features autofocus, an "ultra-wide-angle lens (85 degree), 1280x960 video (1.3 Megapixel), a 4x digital zoom and software-enhancing of still images said to give an effective resolution of 2560x1920 (5 Megapixel). Price, though, will be a hefty £80 - and the blow is only slightly softened by the inclusion in-pack of a 30-minute credit voucher for SkypeOut calls.
Another of US Robotics' products also caught our eye, as did some kit from VOIP Voice and two headphone specialists - Sennheiser and Plantronics.
The US Robotics offering was the USB Internet Speakerphone (Model USR809610), going out in the mid-£30s. This is a Skype-compatible phone that does pretty much what it's name suggest - let's you make and take calls without picking up a handset or putting on headphones. The circular design looks cute and will take up a lot less desktop real estate that many other Skype phones.
VoIP Voice was showing what it said is the first Skype phone built especially for use with Apple Mac computers. That may well be so - and Apple itself currently has exclusive rights to sell the product in its retail and online stores - but there didn't seem any features to get worked up about on this handset-and-cradle cabled model apart from the big blue light that flashes when there's an incoming call. Price is currently £39 but we'd expect that to drop significantly when Apple's exclusive ends in a few weeks' time.
Sennheiser, too, had a dedicate Mac product, the M145, which is a reworked version of its long-established PC145 stereo neckband headset. Price is £80 on Apple UK's web store but £20 less elsewhere. The difference between Mac and Windows versions seems to be largely a question of branding, though Sennheisser says that it has tested and tweaked the M145 to ensure that it works well with a wide range of Macs - new and old.
Plantronics still earns a large part of its revenue supplying rugged headphone sets to call centres but it's long had headphones targeted at computer users, especially gamers, and more recently Skype users, too. The Skype event seem to fall at a bad time for the company - it's got new products coming but not ready for showing - but even so, this was the first time we've had the chance to see in the flesh its Voyager 510 family of over-the-ear Bluetooth headsets.
And they're well worth knowing about because they're claimed to be able to seamlessly switch between two Bluetooth audio devices with multipoint technology. The basic model goes out for around £30 but the Voyagers 510 USB is reckoned to be optimised for VoIP and goes out for three times that price.
It comes comes with a rather clever USB stick device that's said to provide instant wireless connectivity to PC-based VoIP softphones. Instant connection is possible, as we understand it, because the USB stick is seen by the PC as an audio device, not a Bluetooth device that requires the operating system's intervention.
Also well worth a mention were one of the few laptop PCs we've ever heard of that has an integral Skype-call button, the Packard Bell EasyNote Skype Edition; a 3G data card from mobile operator 3 that comes with Skype software's and a companion headset; and last, and really, by no means least, Sandisk's USB-memory-sticks.
Memory sticks? Yes. That's because the password-protected Cruzer Micro and Cruzer Titanium models the company was showing not only come with Skype software but Skype software that runs FROM the memory stick, rather than needing to be installed on a PC.
This is said to be courtesy of U3 technology developed by Sandisk in co-operation with U3 and means that you can take your Skype ID with you on the memory stick and take and make Skype calls (even SkypeOut chargeable calls) on any modern USB-compatible computer that's connected to the internet. There's no need to install anything on the PC and running Skype shouldn't affect it in any way. A great thing to tuck in your briefcase or handbag when travelling light!
Lots of interesting Skype kit - so let us know your thoughts in the HEXUS.community.
Update - June 30, 11:07 - price of the Netgear SPH101 has been changed from £110 to £140.
This piece was written at a time at night when we couldn't double check the price with Netgear (and we had my doubts that what was written down in our notes) but the company got back to to us this morning and said the price we quote should be £140. Apologies for any confusion.
Update - June 30, 11:30 - text added to opening paragraph
This change was made to make clearer the way that the Netgear SPH101 works - or, rather, the situations when it won't. The phone does not have a built-in web browser so can only be used out and about on access point that do not require web-based log in or authentication. That means that it is probably less useful than the original wording of the article would have suggested.
Update - June 30, 15:25 - final lot of images added
HEXUS.community - discussion thread about this article
Netgear - SPH101
Philips - VOIP321
Logitech - QuickCam Chat for Skype
Logitech - QuickCam Communicate STX for Skype
Creative Labs - Live! Cam Voice
US Robotic - USB Telephone Adapter
US Robotics - USB Internet Speakerphone
VoIP Voice - home page
Plantronics UK - home page
Sennheiser UK - home page
Sandisk - about U3 technology