Review: Hotspot troubles hamper Belkin's Wi-Fi Skype phone

Night minutes. Weekend minutes. Data minutes. Mobile-to-mobile minutes. Roaming charges. Rounding off to the next minute. Service charges, usage charges, government fees, taxes. C'mon Verizcingusprintmobile — aren't there more ways to squeeze blood money out of my cell-phone usage?

Or, frag that mess and go with a portable Skype phone, like this one from Belkin. It looks just like your ordinary, average candybar cell phone. But instead of connecting you to your caller via an overpriced cell network, you make (almost) free calls via the Internet using Skype VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol, pronounced VOY'p) from any Wi-Fi hotspot, at home or on the road.

Boy, would it be a pleasure to report that this portable Skype phone is a viable option to Soulless Cell Company. But we can't. Crap. But at home, it's a lot more convenient than being wired to your PC to make and receive calls.

Joining a long list of notable nascent technology products such as the Kaypro 1 and the Apple Newton, this Skype phone is clearly a sign of one potential telecommunications future. Optimally, a phone like this would work best in the more than 100 cities with mesh networks already operating, such as Los Angeles and Hoboken, NJ, or being built around the country . But lacking that, using a portable Skype phone outside your home is analogous to driving a car cross-country in 1910. Because of the ad hoc nature of current Wi-Fi hotspots, you must first locate and connect to a local network before you can make a call, a laborious and often fruitless process that's hardly worth the time or the effort.

All Skype, All the Time
If you have a Skype account, just sign in on the phone and your account information and contact list are transferred to the phone. You also can create a Skype account on the phone, handy if you don't have a home network. In other words, the phone handles all the varying Skype options that you find on your PC.

Not only does this phone look basic, it is. Physically, it's 4.5 x 2 x.75 inches, has a rubberized back for an easy grip, a tiny joystick on the front for menu navigation, a mini USB jack for charging, and a headphone minijack. All the keys are square but tiny and not backlit. Even though this phone is designed to connect to the Internet, there's no Web browser of any kind —s VoIP calls only, please. There's also no Bluetooth, no personal apps (calendar, alarm, etc.) that are found on all cell phones now, no camera, and only four ringtones to choose from, none of them very loud. Yep, just a Skype phone.

Hurry Up and Wait
While sitting in a midtown Manhattan eatery that offers free Wi-Fi, the phone automatically connected to the strongest available free network and found more than a dozen other available networks as well, most of them locked. Like a cell phone, there's a five-bar signal-strength meter in the upper left corner of the 1.75-inch color LCD. After a toe-tapping 20 to 30 seconds, the phone successfully made its initial connection to the network. Or not. I had to wait an additional finger-strumming 15 to 20 seconds for the signal-strength meter to switch from a red "no signal" icon to a couple of sickly signal bars.

Once the signal bars appeared, I attempted several calls, with varying degrees of no success. I actually heard the phone at the other end ring on one attempt, then nothing. In other words, the phone had a powerful enough receiver to find dozens of distant networks, but not strong enough to hone in powerfully enough on the closest network to actually make a call. They could not hear me now.

Fickle Signals
I had more success at home connecting to my own secure local network. Confusingly, a "no IP address assigned" error message appeared after I input my password. After frustratingly canceling out, the phone connected me to my network anyway after the requisite 15- to 20-second wait. Oddly, even though my Belkin router was literally 2 feet from the phone, signal strength waffled between two and four bars; I got a full five bars only occasionally. Call quality was muddy and thick, no comparison to the usually clear Skype calls made with wired gear.

Also fickle was the battery meter, which arbitrarily shifted between a third and two-thirds filled. But you'll want to leave the phone charging at home — you get only 3 hours of talk time and a mere 30 hours of standby.

At the End of the Day…
As a home extension to Skype, this phone is a great idea, giving you the freedom of a cordless phone or cell phone without any of the cost. Portable Skype, however, is simply not ready for prime time, especially since network availability is not as ubiquitous as cell networks.