Skype phones set you free from your PC

A Web-based phone service can certainly save you money, and Skype, perhaps, can save you more than most. This software-based phone service allows you to make PC-to-PC calls for free, though you are charged for calls placed to and received from landlines and cell phones. Till now, though, it has come with a trade-off: You've need to use the service with a PC headset. So to make a call, you've been attached to your PC, quite literally.

But not any more. With Skype's blessing, more and more third-party vendors are offering Skype-compatible phones that allow you to roam around your house--or in some cases, even further--while still talking up a storm. Skype-compatible products are available via Skype's online store.

"Skype has been doing a great job, actually, of making sure that the experience you get on Skype is compatible with the hardware they're offering," says William Stofega, research manager of VOIP services with research firm IDC.

Cutting the cord

In order to connect to Skype, all of these third-party handsets must somehow connect to your PC; most do so via USB. The recently announced USR9630 Cordless Phone for Skype from US Robotics is one such phone. The phone's base station connects to an available USB port on your PC, allowing you to access your Skype account. The handset's LCD shows your Skype contacts, allowing you to see who is online and available to talk.

You can also use the handset to use the SkypeIn and SkypeOut services. SkypeIn provides you with a phone number so you can receive calls from non-Skype users. A one-year subscription to SkypeIn costs about US$38. SkypeOut lets you call landlines and mobile phones from Skype. For the rest of 2006, users in the U.S. can make free calls to landlines and mobile phones in those countries. Typically, rates start around 2 cents per minute.

US Robotics' dual-mode phone also can be connected to your landline telephone jack, so you can use it with your regular phone line service when you prefer. The USR9630 will be available this month for US$120, the company says. Similar phones, like the Cordless DUALphone, are already available from Skype's store.

Skype on speakerphone

Another option for Skype users is the Polycom Communicator, a US$130 speakerphone that also connects to your PC via USB. While you do need to be near your PC to use it, the Communicator is designed to offer better sound quality than your average PC headset. IDC's Stofega is impressed: "I've used Skype with just the PC speakers and microphone in my laptop, and the quality is 100 times better with Polycom device," he says.

If you're interested in using Skype, but not at all interested in using a PC, you may want to consider the NetGear WiFi Phone for Skype. This handset, which was announced earlier this year and began shipping last week, is available for US$250. The Skype client is preloaded on the phone, so you don't need to access the application from a PC. The phone can connect to Skype from any 802.11b/g Wi-Fi hotspot that does not require browser-based authentication. It allows you to make and receive calls to and from Skype users, and to make outgoing calls to non-Skype users via the SkypeOut service. You cannot, however, receive incoming calls from non-Skype users via the SkypeIn Service.

It may seem counterintuitive to pay for a device when Skype was designed as a free service. But these products can make your Skype experience a better one.

"If you're going to be using the Skype service, having a product that works with Skype and is certified by Skype, will help you get a better experience," says Stofega.

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Liane Cassavoy

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