3 Skypephone: First impressions

skypephone-black-vert Since mobile operator 3 launched the Skypephone in the UK last Tuesday, I’ve had a pair of them to play with.

Quite a few thoughts to share. First, though, a quick overview of the Skypephone.

The photo here of the black Skypephone – there are two others, in white with blue or pink edging – doesn’t really do full justice to a phone that combines an attractive look and a nice feel in the hand.

The weight is about right – 86 grams, says the spec sheet (Word doc). What does that actually mean? As I see it, it’s about the same weight as a small cup of coffee.

Size is pleasantly compact and the phone fits nicely in the palm of your hand (see photo below).

Build quality is excellent and the generous and bright 2-inch colour screen is highly legible.

In sum, it’s a dual-band 3G mobile phone that has Skype built-in. More on Skype in a moment.

3G means the phone lets you do the kinds of things you’d want and expect to be able to do with a modern mobile phone.

Things like get online fast on the internet. Do things on Facebook. Send and receive multimedia content. Watch streaming video from YouTube. Etc.

You’d also want to play music and watch stored video files. Take pictures with a camera that has a reasonable resolution (this has 2 megapixels) as well as shoot your own video. Enough storage capacity to store your files. Easy to transfer your content to and from a PC or other device via Bluetooth and USB.

Oh, and make and receive phone calls :)

You’ll be pleased to know that you can do all these things with the Skypephone.

In fact, the phone is so highly spec’d (details and also see 3′s FAQ) that you might expect to pay an arm if not the leg as well for such a fully-featured device.

You can actually get it for a penny less than £50 on a pay-as-you go deal with 3. If you take out a monthly contract, you get it for free.

I’ve been using one on a daily basis since the launch, courtesy of 3.

The key feature, without doubt, is the combination of Skype, free calling and texting and ease of use which are the areas I’ve devoted my attention to during the past week. I’ve not yet used any of the other features, not even making normal phone calls (the reason for which will become apparent).

And I have one negative to comment on, and a pretty big one it is. I’ll get to it shortly.

So, let’s look at this phone that’s such a snug fit in your hand, from the using Skype point of view.

skypephoneinhand2

I took this photo which shows some of my Skype contacts list. If you use Skype on your PC, this list will look familiar as it displays your contacts more or less as they appear on your computer.

All you do is press the big Skype button to pull up your contacts list. Scroll to highlight a name, click the Skype button again, and you make your call. Dead easy.

To text chat, highlight a name, click ‘Options’ and select ‘Start chat.’ Simple.

The first time you use the phone and log in to Skype, it retrieves your contacts list, just as Skype does when you run the program on a computer. So that’s expected behaviour.

In fact, the whole Skype experience on this phone – from logging in, to the sounds you hear when a Skype call comes in or you receive a Skype text – is similar to using Skype on a PC.

Existing Skype users will find a lot of familiarity with this phone. New users will find it very simple and easy to set up a Skype account.

One neat thing I discovered is that you can be logged in to your Skype account on the phone at the same time as you’re logged in on your computer.

It’s quite surreal when you get Skype text messages on your PC and then, a few seconds later, on your phone. If you respond on one device, your reply message shows up on the other as well.

Skype’s integration with the phone is very good, as you would expect from a phone which has been wholly designed around Skype rather than a phone which lets you add Skype.

This integration extends to being able to include your Skype contacts in with your regular phone address book. The benefit of that is having a single contact list to manage, however you choose to communicate with people.

One thing to be clear about regarding Skype is that calls to other Skype users you make completely free of charge are Skype to Skype.

That is, not making SkypeOut calls (or receiving SkypeIn calls). According to the FAQ:

The 3 Skypephone does not support Skype Out, as 3 already provides you with great value calling to normal phone numbers around the world.

Does it matter? Of course, it would be great to be able to call regular phone numbers from the Skypephone at the same low rates you can when using Skype on your PC, especially to make international calls.

But you can’t. The way I see it, 3 is a mobile operator and enabling low-cost Skype rates doesn’t make much economic sense for them, as that would directly undercut their own call rates over the cellular network.

If you could make lower-cost phone calls using Skype, why would you make any other type of call from your Skypephone? I certainly wouldn’t.

But there was some informal talk in the press launch last week that they’re thinking about enabling SkypeOut calls in a future version of the phone. That might arrive in 2008. And I wonder what 3′s business model will look like then.

In the meantime, it’s Skype to Skype only.

Those free Skype calls are subject to a fair use policy which seems pretty generous to me – 4,000 minutes (that’s nearly 67 hours) and 10,000 text messages per month.

And with the pay-as-you go deal, you have to purchase a £10 top-up each month in order to continue using the phone.

I’ve made and received quite a few Skype calls to and from my Skype contacts. Call quality is generally good although much depends on the strength and quality of the network you’re connected to, just as with any normal mobile phone.

Although I haven’t yet tried roaming abroad on this phone, you can use it outside your home country (but not in the US) according to the FAQ:

The 3 Skypephone will work like a normal mobile when overseas, and therefore you will be able to make normal voice calls and send and receive SMS whenever you are on a GSM 900 or 1800 network (see your country’s 3 website for the full list of countries that you can roam in). The 3 Skypephone is dual band and therefore will not work in the USA.

(If it doesn’t work in the USA, I wonder how Dan York managed to see a working Skypephone at the VON conference in Boston last week?)

Note when roaming abroad:

Q: Can I use my free Skype minutes when roaming abroad?
A: Only when on a 3 network

One thing I was curious about was understanding how it all works when making Skype calls. Skype is a VoIP service, using the internet not a cellular network.

What happens is that when you start a Skype call, the initial connection is made via the cellular network you’re connected to, whether it’s 3′s or anyone else’s. The call then goes out over the internet from an internet gateway. Well, something like that.

The best description on this that I’ve seen is in a post on Hitnews which describes the role of software written by iSkoot, which is built in to the Skypephone:

[...] Skype calls from the 3Skypephone aren’t 3G VoIP calls. They are GSM calls from the phone to the 3-iSkoot server, which then channels them over the fixed line internet to Skype. The data connection is only used to show the presence of the Skype buddies.

I guess that explains why Skype works as well on a 2G connection (ie, GSM) as it does on a 3G connection.

And that brings me to the big negative I mentioned earlier.

Where I live in Wokingham, 3′s 3G network is pretty hopeless, no matter what their network coverage map says:

3networkcoverage

This shows that where I am, 3G network service blankets the whole area. Well, not in my place it doesn’t!

I’m right in the red area shown on this map, yet 3′s 3G service is basically non-existent. I contrast this with 3G coverage from Vodafone and O2 – full strength and reliable, 100% of the time.

Put it another way – with Vodafone I see all 7 strength bars on my Nokia N73 on the little meter fully lit up, all the time. On the Skypephone, I’m lucky to see one bar lit; usually, it’s no bars accompanied by the phrase ‘Limited Service’ or ‘No Service’ in the middle of the screen.

Until a few days ago, I could hardly use the Skypephone at all as 3′s 3G network connection borked more than it worked.

So no trying out any of the other cool features offered with the Skypephone.

I spent quite a bit of time on the phone (from a BT landline) last week with 3′s tech support. They were finally able to help me get connected by suggesting I manually set the network connection to use 3′s 2G connection by default (what they called the backup network). That works fine – all the strength bars on the meter are fully lit up, most of the time.

And Skype works just fine with it, although when I turn on the phone and Skype goes through its logging-in, it doesn’t always succeed on a 2G connection. So then I have to go into the network settings each time, manually set it to 3′s 3G connection, hope I actually get a connection and try logging in to Skype that way.

A real pain.

I wouldn’t suggest by any means that my experience with 3′s network is typical everywhere. Of course not. Maybe my physical location just happens to be in a bit of a blind spot as far as 3 is concerned.

Coverage by 3′s 3G network has been fine in places I’ve travelled to in the past few days including central London, Reading and Camberley. No problems in those areas.

It’s a pity as I would have liked to have got to know more of the phone’s capabilities before writing this first impressions review.

But this is about first impressions.

So for me, the 3G network issue is a major show-stopper. If I can’t use the full capabilities of a phone in the place where I live, then it’s not much use to me.

I’ve also had a couple of occasions when the phone has rebooted by itself. No idea what could be causing that (I’ve experienced similar behaviour with other mobile phones; firmware updates usually fixed them).

Overall, though, I do think the Skypephone is terrific. It’s very easy to use, it’s affordable and being mobile with Skype is pretty compelling. I could see this flying off the store shelves between now and Christmas.

First, just make sure you can actually get 3′s 3G network.

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