The Skypephone is Three’s second attempt at bringing the highly popular Internet calling service, Skype, to the masses. Their first attempt, a mobile version of the PC application, was slipped into (at the time) high-end handsets like the Nokia E65 - but was less than successful due to the high costs of data to external networks.
This time instead of providing an add-on application, Three teamed up with Skype and Chinese manufacturer Amoi to provide an all-in-one handset with integrated Skype functionality as well as regular mobile phone functionality.
Skype, for those unaware, is a telephone service that allows anyone with an Internet connection to make telephone calls to other Skype users for free, and to regular landlines and mobile phones for a fee that is generally cheaper than standard fixed lines.
In December 2007 there were over 270 million accounts on the Skype network, with up to 12 million users concurrently online in February. Skype was originally a PC-only application, but has since evolved onto handheld devices including Sony’s Play Station Portable (PSP).
The Skypephone’s biggest drawcard is of course the Skype functionality. The integrated application allows users to call and receive calls from other Skype users, as well as conduct instant messaging conversations using the Skype Chat service.
To get around the high cost of data, Three utilise their 2G network for Skype call data. This provides several advantages: firstly, the Skype features can be used when 3G coverage is not available. Secondly, there is no need for a constant data connection, which has been proven to consume a lot of battery life. Additionally, the 2G coverage area is much larger than the 3G coverage area, so you can Skype in more places.
More on the Skype application, the network functionality and call testing can be found in the Making and Receiving calls section of this article.
Underneath the Skype functionality is a fairly standard entry-level handset. There’s a 2” TFT LCD display with 262,144 colours, a 2mpx digital camera with video recording, Java support, 16MB internal memory and support for microSD memory cards. Bluetooth and USB connectivity makes the list, too.
Three’s Skypephone is a traditional candy bar form factor handset available in three colour variations: white with pink, white with blue, or black. It is extremely light at just 86 grams and will fit into any bag or pocket easily.
On the front of the handset you will find (from the top) the earpiece, 2” TFT LCD, and the keypad. The keys are made of somewhat hard plastic but are rounded at the top making them extremely easy to press and comfortable to use.
A volume up/down rocker is located on the left hand side of the handset, and on the right you will find the application switched (explained in the next section), and dedicated camera key. The top right hand corner houses the wrist strap loop, too.
At the bottom of the handset is the all-in-one miniUSB connector, used for transferring data, charging, and connecting the stereo headset.
The 2mpx camera lens is located on the back of the handset, with a small chrome mirror for self portraits. The back cover is attached by a magnet, making it very easy to remove and replace but also fairly strong. Underneath the battery is the SIM card slot and microSD slot.
User interface & display
The Skypephone is manufactured by AMOI, a Chinese company, and uses a proprietary BREW operating system by Qualcomm. The operating system is simplistic and is controlled by the handset’s two soft keys and 5-way navigational keypad. The LCD is a 2” TFT LCD, capable of displaying up to 262,144 colours within its 176 x 220 pixel area.
The idle screen displays the wallpaper, time, date, operator name, and text labels for the two soft keys. At the top of the screen is a row of icons for reception level, battery status, data connection status, and Skype status.
The Skypephone’s main menu consists of nine icons: Web, Call Log, Games and Apps, Multimedia, Messages, My Stuff, Tools, Contacts, and Settings. Where’s the Skype icon you may ask? It has a dedicated key – the middle of the navigational button. However, it will only open the Skype application when you are at the standby screen; it acts as a “confirm” or “ok” button at any other time.
A special button on the right hand side of the Skypephone is used to switch between open applications. This is useful when you have, for example, the Web browser open and you want to get back to the Skype application without closing the browser. Pressing the dedicated button will bring up a row of icons with the currently open applications (similar to ALT+TAB on a computer) to switch between.
The UI has a blue colour scheme that resembles the PC version of the Skype application and the Skype website. The colours cannot be changed but items such as the wallpaper can be personalised.
Although the Skyephone’s display is smaller than many in today’s market, there is really no need for it to be any larger.
Making and receiving calls
The Skypephone supports voice calling to Skype users and regular voice calling on 2G and 3G networks. Video calling is not supported on 3G networks.
A common assumption about the Skypephone is that it uses Three’s 3G data connection to connect to the Skype service to handle calls – much like the PC version uses your Internet connection. If this was the case, the Skype functionality would be limited to times when the handset is in a 3G coverage area – and although Three’s network is quite large, it doesn’t cover some areas.
In order to get around this limitation, the Skypephone uses the normal GSM network for Skype call data. This permits Skype calls when not in 3G coverage, and also means battery life can be conserved because a constant data channel does not need to be open.
The actual Skype application has been built by iSkoot to look as similar as possible to the full-blown PC version. The sounds are the same and many of the menus use the same wording.
When the Skypephone is turned on for the first time it will ask you enter your Skype account details, or create a new account. The application can be set to launch and login as soon as the handset is turned on, or you can opt to manually login. When logged in, your list of contacts will be imported and displayed on the main screen with the contact’s status. Managing contacts can be achieved through the application and is fairly straight-forward.
Incoming calls are handled much like regular voice calls are, and can be answered or denied using the dedicated pick-up and hang-up keys. Calls can be made by simply hovering over the contact you wish to call and hitting the green pick-up key – it’s as easy as that.
Any Skype user will know that there is always some form of lag when making calls over the Internet – and this is still the case with the Skypephone. I tested the call functionality to many contacts and received mixed results. Many calls would begin with very choppy audio, but this corrected itself within about 5 seconds. Occasionally, during a call, the audio would drop out and become choppy but this would usually correct itself also.
That said, some calls did not become choppy at any stage. With Internet-based calling there is always going to be the possibility of lag due to the endless amount of factors determining different paths for data transmission. Some users of the Skypephone have reported common drop-outs, but not one of my calls dropped out during testing.
One thing that everyone I spoke to on the Skype network mentioned was that my voice was very quiet. Only when I was shouting at the phone did they say it was at normal volume – which of course isn’t a plausible solution to the problem.
Unfortunately, Skype’s SkypeIn and SkypeOut features are not supported by the Skypephone. SkypeIn is a personal number that can be purchased from Skype allowing anyone, anywhere in the world, using any phone, to dial a direct number and be connected to your Skype account. SkypeIn has been available in Hong Kong since February (2008), but it is not yet known when the feature will be available in other areas.
SkypeOut is a feature which allows a Skype account to call regular national and international phones at cheap prices. This means that the Skype functionality on the Skypephone can only be used to call other Skype contacts, and for Skype contacts to call you (via your Skype username).
SkypeOut is not supported on any variant of the Skypephone. Skype Video Calling is also unsupported.
At the end of the day, Three deserve much commendation for the Skypephone. Setup is simple (even if you don’t have a Skype account) and using the application for calling and instant messaging just couldn’t be easier. First-time users of VoIP/Skype will not have any problem conquering the Skypephone.
Normal call functionality
Aside from the Skype features of the Skypephone there is also support for plain-old voice calls. The Skypephone has an integrated earpiece, loudspeaker, and supports wired and wireless (Bluetooth) headsets – a wired stereo headset is included in the sales package.
GSM 900/1800 and UMTS 2100MHz networks are supported, with automatic switching between bands ensuring the best coverage possible. Normal voice calls can be made when the Skype service is logged in but you cannot have both a Skype call and a voice call active at the same time.
The volume rocker on the left hand side of the handset can be used to adjust volume at any time during a call or when in standby. Unfortunately the problem I mentioned earlier with the microphone volume during Skype calls is still present in normal voice calls, meaning it is a problem with the internal microphone levels.
SMS/EMS, MMS, e-mail and Skype Instant Messaging is supported by the Skypephone, with an internal T9 predictive text dictionary.
The built-in messaging application handles SMS/EMS, MMS, and e-mail messaging. The 2mpx digital camera with video and image capture makes a great MMS companion for sharing special moments with friends.
POP3 and SMTP e-mail accounts can be added to the application, and with fast 3G data speeds your e-mail can be in your pocket in no time.
Skype Instant Messaging is handled separately by the Skype application. If a contact starts a chat with you the handset will make a noise (the same noise the PC version of Skype makes) to indicate a new message. The icon at the top of the screen will also change. New chats can be created with contacts by selecting their name on the contact list and selecting the appropriate link in the options menu.
The Skypephone’s large curved buttons coupled with the T9 predictive text dictionary make messaging a breeze. I’m happy to report there is also no lag during messaging – something many users (including myself) cannot stand!
Bluetooth and USB are offered for local connectivity between the Skypephone and a compatible device. The Bluetooth radio is compliant with version 2.0 of the specification, and includes support for the A2DP stereo Bluetooth profile. All the usuals, including Headset, Hands Free, and File Transfer profiles are also supported.
When testing the Bluetooth support on the Skypephone I was able to achieve file transfer rates of around 45KB/s – a fairly mediocre speed, but still very practical.
The miniUSB port on the bottom of the Skypephone is a multipurpose port, used for charging, data connections, and accessories (such as the wired stereo headset).
The sales package includes a USB data-cable, which can be used in conjunction with the included PC software or without – thanks to the Mass Storage Device profile.
The Mass Storage Device profile allows the Skypephone to be connected to a compatible PC and the contents of the memory displayed (like an external hard drive would) without the need to install additional drivers. This makes it quick and easy to transfer files, especially when you’re not using a computer that has the bundled software installed.
Additionally, the Skypephone recharges when it is connected via USB.
In terms of 3G connectivity, the Skypephone supports the UMTS 2100MHz standard. It does support HSDPA data (unfortunately), but the WCDMA protocol will provide data speeds of up to 384kbp/s (downstream).
GSM 900 and 1800MHz networks are also supported by the Skypephone. As I mentioned in an earlier section, the GSM network is used for transmitting data for the Skype calls, allowing you to use the service when roaming out of 3G range and when a steady packet data connection is not available.
The Skypephone has a built-in proprietary web browser and has access to all of Three’s online services including streaming video, downloadable music and video, ring tones, and much more. The browser is fairly basic but does support HTML web pages as well as mobile standards.
The Skypephone has an integrated media player supporting popular mobile video and audio formats such as MPEG4, 3GPP, AMR-NB, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, MIDI, MP3, WMA, and WAV.
The media player supports ID3 tags and conveniently sorts audio files stored on the internal and external memory based on their tags. Each time the application is opened it will detect if any changes have been made to the internal/external memory and then update the library as needed.
A miniUSB stereo headset is included in the sales package, offering fairly decent audio quality. The integrated speakerphone offers surprisingly good quality, even at high volume.
The media player also supports streaming video, with plenty available through Planet Three.
I was surprised at these results – and for the right reasons, too. Although the results are quite low when compared to other handsets on the market, they are not low enough to cause too much grief. Most applications should run without too may hiccups.
Three’s Skypephone supports Java applications through its embedded Java application environment JBlend, by iaSolution. Using the JBenchmark testing suite I achieved the following results:
||LQ: 297, HQ: 256
The first versions of the Skypephone had integrated Windows Messenger functionality, but this was ditched in future revisions of the handset. Now, Windows Messenger support comes in the form of a pre-installed Java application.
Additional Java applications can be downloaded from Planet Three, or you can transfer them to the handset via USB or Bluetooth. After transferring a bunch of .jar files I was able to simply browse to them using the My Stuff browser and click on each item to install. Installation is extremely fast and the handset will give you the option to launch the application after installation if desired.
All installed applications are moved to the Games & apps section of the UI for easy access.
The Skypephone also has a range of PIM applications including an alarm clock, calculator, calendar notepad, world time, and stopwatch. The calendar and phone book can be synchronized with a PC using the included data-cable and software.
The Skypephone has quite decent build quality, but I did come across a few issues.
Although the handset feels solid in hand, its outer shell does appear to be crafted from quite thin plastic which could possibly break if the Skypephone suffered a fall. The back cover of the handset does not sufficiently insulate the battery and can get quite hot very quickly.
The protective covering on the screen is also very easy to scratch – having the Skypephone in my pocket with coins for a day resulted in a large (and deep) scratch on the screen.
Additionally, the microSD card has been placed underneath the battery, making it a major annoyance to remove as the handset will need to be turned off first. It is also held into place by a small metal clasp which is fiddly to open and could possibly be broken if not handled correctly.
The Skypephone uses a proprietary 1150mAh lithium-ion battery pack, with Three boasting 202 hours of standby (~13 days), up to 199 minutes of talk time, or up to 118 minutes of video talk time.
The talk time of the Skypephone is quite low for today’s standards, and during testing I found I could only squeeze around 3 days out of the Skypephone with light usage. Light usage included a few messages, some Skype calling and a little web browsing.
It is worth a mention here that the battery can get quite hot when browsing the Internet. Batteries are known to get hot during heavy usage and although the Skypephone does not get too hot to touch, it can be uncomfortable. More on this can be found in the problems and issues section.