After a recent run of rants, it’s about time I found something to rave about. Enter “a low cost way to make calls from Skype to friends who still use those traditional landlines or mobile phones. That means calling anyone, anywhere in the world at local rates” (q.v. SkypeOut). Add to this a USB phone that does VoIP (voice over IP) and integrates with Skype (q.v. VoIPVoice Cyberphone K). We have family and friends in Germany and New Zealand and international calls contribute to most of our £80-90 per quarter phone bill. If you’re serious about reducing BT’s profit margin, you might want to check out this pairing.
I’ve looked at Skype before, here. Until recently I used it for Mac to PC Internet telephony, but have been disappointed with the call quality (especially to my parents in NZ who use a dial-up modem, but also to family in Germany who are on broadband like us). Such calls are routed from computer to computer over the Internet, and thus require the remote end to be online (shame Skype’s online status indicator seems a bit flakey).
SkypeOut means you can use your computer (with or without accessories) to call someone on their landline or mobile phone. This time the call is routed over the Internet for some of the time, then gets passed on to the public telephone or mobile network. The most important implication of doing this is that you aren’t paying for an international call, but for a local one! Calling your neighbour up the road is no more or less expensive than calling someone who happens to be 12,000 miles away…
For €11.50 you can buy €10 worth of calling credit. It basically works like a pay-as-you-go mobile, except you get an itemised bill that you can view online or export as an Excel spreadsheet just for kicks. Calls from the UK to Germany and New Zealand, for example, cost just €0.02 per minute (as of 20.08.05) and there is no “peak rate”. Look at these examples and imagine what BT would have charged for the same call duration:
The SkypeOut Global Rate (they say €0.17 per minute but you’re charged ?0.20 per minute) applies to calls to a landline in some of the most popular “destinations” (yellow on the map!), but you can apparently SkypeOut to almost anywhere in the world:
Making calls to mobile phones is more expensive than to landlines. Making calls within the UK is cheaper too. According to Skype, SkypeOut costs 45% less than calls via Tele2 UK. In short, we’re predicting much smaller phone bills. So, are there any disadvantages? Not many:
- In order to place a call you have to enter the international code and the area code in every case. However, the Dialling Wizard can help you sort out the correct number to use;
- Use it or loose it: “Your SkypeOut credits will remain active for 180 days after your last SkypeOut call.” Just remember to phone lots of people to clear your balance before taking that Gap Year in the Namib desert;
- Echo can be an issue.
If you enter this information into Address Book you dial Contacts directly from the OS X system-wide Address Book. Skype for Mac includes the required plug-in. Interestingly this seems to work even if you include the full area code (and don’t leave off the initial zero).
In Address Book, be sure to enter the number in international dialing format (starting with + and country code) so it is available to Skype.
Cyberphone K USB phone
Partly because we like the physicality of a hardware phone and don’t dig headsets, we decided to get hold of the VoIPVoice Cyberphone K USB phone. It also promised an “acoustically isolated speaker and microphone to eliminate echo”.
The Cyberphone has a keypad, meaning you can just pick it up and dial without having to tap on your computer’s keyboard (your computer must of course be on, and Skype up-and-running). When it rings you just pick it up and it answers the call, again like a normal phone. The ringer sounds different to our landline, so it’s easy to know when you’re being Skyped. I draw some comfort that it isn’t limited to pairing with Skype: if they go belly up, being able to use it as a speaker/ microphone with Windows Messenger or iChat protects your modest investment (if you can cope with the firewall issues these clients seem to have). Another advantage over Skype on its own is that VoIP doesn’t take over your built-in speakers: for example, I can have iTunes playing without hearing the other side of the conversation while my wife is using the Cyberphone. The audio settings to achieve this under Windows XP are:
And under Mac OS X 10.4.2:
Any disadvantages? Let’s consider use with Windows XP first:
- Echo persists (Grrrr! Why can I hear myself?), and sometimes the voice of person you have called sounds electronically distorted or “tinny”;
- Your PC needs to be on (wouldn’t it be great if it plugged in to your always-on router instead?);
And what about under OS X? Now we have problems. It can be used as a mic and speaker, but no drivers are yet available (they were “imminent” in April 2005). As a result there are a few extra issues for Mac users:
- You have to dial using the Skype software, since the keypad is non-functional;
- Taking the phone off hook doesn’t answer a call as it does under Win XP—you have to use the Skype software;
- You can’t end the call by hanging up as under Win XP—you have to use the Skype software;
- The phone’s ringer doesn’t work; you’ll hear the ring over your Mac’s speakers;
- The volume button on the phone base doesn’t seem to work. It makes the system volume louder on the Mac, but appears to have no effect on the speaker in the phone. I know this isn’t a fault in the phone as I can adjust it as expected when using it with Win XP.
In short, for relatively new technology it (mostly) does what it says on the tin. I have no doubt that SkypeOut will pay for the convenience of the Cyberphone in no time at all: about a month, actually, if we resist picking up the landline! Mac OS X drivers would be most welcome. Buy yours here!
Update 08.09.05: Yes, it’s true that Mac drivers are in development and no, I can’t give them to you so thanks for not asking me to breech the non-disclosure agreement.
Update 05.12.05: The Cyberphone K Mac driver (Panther or later) is now available for download.
Update 25.03.06: The Cyberphone K Mac driver (d24) appears to work flawlessly under Rosetta on an Intel-based Mac mini. If you need the Mac driver contact VoIPVoice Support; apparently they’ve been having major problems of late due to a warehouse fire.
Update 27.06.06: In an e-mail today VoIPVoice confirmed that the Cyberphone K is discontinued and no Universal Binary drivers will be developed. They also confirmed that they are not in a position to offer Forum-based support (as before the fire which nearly destroyed their business), but are still offering e-mail and telephone-based support. I am not aware of a Mac and Skype-compatible USB phone that offers drivers for Intel Macs. Ipevo offer downloadable PowerPC-only Mac drivers (as of this writing) for their Free-1 phone. Netgear’s WiFi Phone for Skype looks interesting (although expensive) as it works cordless with a WiFi network out of the box.