3 Skypephone Mobile Phone Review: The future of Mobile VoIP

The Skypephone made quite an impression when it first came to market at the end of October 2007 and for a single good reason.

This nifty little device, built by Chinese OEM Amoi, will allow you to call nearly 2.5 million regular Skype users in UK and an additional 250 million other Skype users worldwide.

It was the first phone which allowed you to make VoIP calls out of the box without any hacks and with the explicit approval of the service provider.

Outside the UK, the Skypephone can be used in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Hong Kong, Italy, Ireland, Macau and Sweden through the Three Network.

Three Network, the mobile phone operator, operator throws in 4000 (yes... four thousand) Skype to Skype minutes and up to 10,000 chat messages per month when you top up £10 per month or on a contract - which starts from £12.

They do not charge you extra - as in data costs - for the VoIP calling which means that you will not see any additional items on your bill.

Unfortunately, so as not to overlap with Three's own paid-for services, Skype doesn't officially allow its recent unlimited call packages, SkypeIN, SkypeToGo or SkypeOUT although there is a hack that appears to be working on the Skypephone official forum.

The Phone itself

We've tested the black version which came with a mini USB cable, a pair of earphones, a CDROM, a manual and a USB plug.

The CDROM contains a PC Sync application which allows you to synchronise data saved on your phone together with that saved on your PC; there's also a nice application that let you use the phone as a mobile modem, allowing you to connect your PC/laptop to the net.

Our Skypephone came with an old firmware, version 18; you can check which firmware version you use by pressing *789#.

A newer version has been released since then which can be applied via the supplied USB cable.

This candy bar phone on a PAYG package costs only £40 while a twin pack costs £70 and comes either in white (with either blue or pink trim) or anthracite.

It feels fairly sturdy and much slimmer than your average mobile phone, certainly Three's smallest 3G handset currently on the market, at only 100 x 44 x 13.6mm and weighing 86g.

Three is also bundling a 256MB memory card with the mobile phone (complementing the meagre onboard 16MB memory) which can accept MicroSD cards up to 1GB.

The Skypephone has a 2-inch QCIF 176 x 220 pixel screen occupying two thirds of the phone's surface and, which according to some sources, is prone to scratching.

The colours are vibrant and good enough to watch a few short movies.

The keys are big enough for the average fingers and have a very slight bulge which actually make texting and chatting a doodle.

There are two keys on each side of the phone - up and down volume keys, an application button which allows you to scroll through applications that are running and a camera phone button which launches the camera software.

At the bottom of the phone is a small piece of plastic that covers a mini-USB port which allows charging and data exchange which allows the Skypephone to be used as a mass storage device.

This also means that you can charge your phone through the USB port and won't have to pay a premium price to get a cable with a proprietary connector should you lose it.

The camera is a basic 2-megapixel point-and-shoot model which does the job but does not come with a flash.

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It doubles as a video camera which can record stamp-sized movies and comes with the usual features that you can find on similar phones such as basic autofocus, auto-timer, night mode and special effects.

Don't expect miracles though as the camera struggles to deliver quality photos under low light conditions with an excess of noise.

Battery life is excellent thanks to a 1150mAh capacity and is particularly commendable when you consider that the Skypephone is a 3G mobile phone which normally have notoriously poor usable capacity.

According to Three, the phone means a standby period of nearly two weeks - helped by the fact that it goes in sleep mode fairly quickly - but talk time is substantially less at around four hours.

The Skypephone also comes with the regular set of utilities like an alarm clock, a calculator, a calendar, a notepad and a stopwatch plus the ability to synchronise your phone with your PC via an USB cable and Bluetooth compatibility.

The Software

The BREW Operating environment - which powers the Skypephone - is a Qualcomm product whilst the Skype Interface is provided by iSkoot.

The Skype application can be called up simply by pressing the big "Skype" button that lies in the middle of the phone and which is surrounded by a silver frame which happens to be a four-directional key.

You only need to sign in - as you would normally do on your desktop Skype client - to get started; It stays in the foreground and can be minimised without having to log out of your Skype account.

Using Skype itself is quite straight forward and you can make calls or chat within a few seconds.

Voice quality is quite good and although it doesn't match a desktop-bound Skype call, it is a testament to the great job that Skype and Three have achieved.

The conversation flow occasionally breaks especially when you start moving around but the problem doesn't get worse on a train.

The embarked Skype application provides with most of the features that you would find on the desktop version like the ability to change your status, add and remove contracts.

But you won't be able to do video calls (obviously) or do conference calls or add multiple users to a chat.

Ironically, the Skypephone does support video calling but as there is no secondary facial camera, this feature is worthless except if you want to make a video call using a mirror.

Althought the Skypephone has a strong affiliation with the Ebay owned VoIP provider, you still have access to a number of free services including MSN Messenger.

Unlimited internet access through Three is available for an additional £5 per month although this carries a 1GB fair usage policy and is speedy thanks to 3G technology but this is a subjective opinion; I have been able to watch a few streaming clips through Three's free news services provided by ITN.

The phone automatically switches to GSM when it can't connect to a 3G network and locks you out services that rely on this network to work.

The onboard Media player is not as user friendly as the rest of the phone, for example, the "stop" button is not readily available.

The sound quality either though the pair of earphones provided or through the phone's speakers is good and doesn't lack bass as on cheaper earphones.

Skypephone's Cons

We've listed 10 problems, which are more irritating issues rather than critical problems.

1. You have to remove the battery to access the MicroSD card (and therefore switch off the phone).

2. There's no front camera which means that video calling is not possible.

3. It is also advisable that you remember to log out of the phone when you sign out because Skype has difficulties routing texts between the embarked Skype and the desktop version.

4. We also noticed a slight delay when typing a line and actually seeing it in the conversation area; not a major issue, but be prepared to deal with it.

5. Trying to access three's application shop generated an unknown error (see picture).

6. If you leave the phone on the menu mode, the screen does not go into power saving mode, which is not ideal and drains the battery.

7. The phone is not compatible with the Mac OS X platform for now.

8. Also note that the Skypephone is a dual band phone and can't be used in the US for now.

9. The Handset becomes quite hot when you try to charge the Skypephone while using it.

10. The non-numeric buttons are not intuitive as their meaning changes relative to their context; for example when you

It is worth noting that free internet access on the Skypephone is restricted to a few areas including Three's own Planet 3, a walled garden/proprietary portal that provides with services, news and a few features.

Conclusion

The combination of great pricing and superb configuration won it a Global Mobile Awards at the Mobile World Congress in the "Best Mobile Handset or Device" category while resellers are reporting that the phone is literally flying off the shelf.... and it is easy to see why.

The Skypephone is not the ideal phone but it is certainly the cheapest way to access Skype and MSN messenger on the move; and does it in style.

Alternatively, one could go for Three's X-Series offers which provide with more upmarket phones or try the Sony Ericsson K660i which we will be testing fairly shortly.

An upmarket version of the Skypephone would probably be a massive success with a bigger screen, a 3-megapixel camera with a decent flash and a few changes.

There also are a few rumours that a smartphone version of the Skypephone with integrated 3G access could be closer than we think.

It does not aspire to become an iPhone, after all, an 18-month contract on the Skypephone costs you less than the price of an 8GB iPhone.

Three's Skypephone Page

The Skypephone Website

Other Skypephone reviews

- The DailyAck

- Mobilesift

- Gadget Venue

- Geektown

- ITreviews

- MobileChoice UK

- FileSaveas

- 3G

- Cnet

- Technical itch