22 July, 2009

Wifi phones galore

Over the past couple of years I've tested quite a handful of PDAs and phone handsets for making calls from wifi hotspots.

Why use a wifi phone?
Some wifi handsets have been marketed for use as a cordless home phone. Personally, I can't see a great deal of point in this, other than eliminating the phone base unit. On the other hand, when out and about, it can make a sizeable cut in the amount you pay to the mobile company. However, many recent mobile packages take away the need for a wifi phone and the hassle of finding a free hotspot. In short, wifi phones are useful for people using pay as you go packages or international travellers who want to avoid exorbitant roaming fees.

Compaq iPaq PDA
My experiments started some years ago with an elderly Compaq (now HP) PDA running Windows Mobile 2 (?). I eventually managed to shoe-horn X-Lite (or was it SJ-Phone?) onto it and made satisfactory calls using a Wengo VOIP account. Unfortunately, when I upgraded the Windows Mobile to a version marginally more recent, I found that HP no longer provided support for the Wifi cards. I downgraded the Windows Mobile, but new projects to play with and the demise of the battery meant that the retirement of this decidedly chunky gadget, made even clunkier with the external battery pack.

Neither a phone, nor strictly speaking a PDA, this gadget is in fact a "travelling computer". Its relation to a real laptop computer is much the same as that of a magnetic or peg chess-board to the full-blown thing. Moreover, it also makes a very good PDA. Skype is pre-installed (except for the cut-down SFR badged version, but it is easy to install) so you can video chat from a bar or by the side of a swimming pool. You can also buy Skype-out credit to call phones for a reasonable price. But you might feel a bit silly talking into a computer in a pub. I took a 7 inch linux version with me on trips to Brazil, Turkey and London and it came in very useful indeed, for surfing as well as calling. The wifi antenna is very sensitive.
But in particular, it doesn't look like a phone. So it will really bring attention to you in the street. I also installed a couple of SIP clients, including Wengophone, but none of them worked as well as Skype. Lack of Linux support seems to be the problem.

The next few posts will give more detailed accounts of my encounters with other units: the Pirelli DP-L10, known in France as the "Free Black"; the Free White, the E2831, Benq and another badged N9uf.

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