Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The iPhone comes to Thailand

There’s nothing quite like being an “early adopter”, and I guess getting one’s hands on an iPhone in Thailand qualifies for the title. I’ve even got the phone working on my telecom operator’s network, without the need to head down to the geek section of Maboonkrong (MBK) centre to unlock it or looking online for a hack to open it up. That’s because my iPhone is actually of the Linksys variety, the CIT400 Skype phone.

The “iPhone” might be forever associated with Apple now, but it’s Linksys and its parent company Cisco that originally owned (and still do) the registered name. If you cast your mind back to when the Apple iPhone first came out, you might remember there was a bit of public sparring over who had rights to the name. They resolved that dispute in February 2007, with the result that both companies are free to use the “iPhone” trademark on their products throughout the world, although other details of the agreement were undisclosed.

And the Linksys iPhone is every bit as innovative and stylish as its Apple namesake: It’s a dual-mode cordless (DECT) phone that makes Skype Internet calls over a broadband connection or regular calls through the phone network. And it will even make the Skype calls without the computer being turned on .

Setting it up is a breeze, at least it is once you get your home network prepared. The unit comes with a wireless “base station” that connects to your broadband connection via Ethernet. In my case, the ADSL modem used the only available Ethernet port on my computer, so I had to get an Ethernet hub. My hub came from a neighbour, who retrieved one from his electronics “spares” box. It didn’t come with a cable, so I rustled one up out of my own junk gear collection, which is how I came to find out that not all “Cat 5” cables are the same. Turns out that cables that connect two computers together look exactly like those that connect a hub to a computer – only they won’t work. So finally the neighbour also supplied a spare Ethernet cable and I plugged the hub in and it “just worked.”

As an aside though, this is one issue with anything to do with home networking – there’s a dog’s breakfast of standards and formats out there. Even just getting a power board that will accept the different electrical plugs can be a challenge, so as we move into the era of home networking there needs to be a lot more work on getting standard equipment. At a recent Cisco press event in Singapore, Nick Fielibert, the chief technical officer of Scientific Atlanta (now a Cisco company), summed the situation up like this. “The best you can say is that devices in the home don’t connect well. Everyone talks about [the connected home] but I don’t think anyone’s seen it yet. It’s a bit like the Lochness Monster or the Holy Grail.”

Needless to say, Cisco and just about every other networking vendor on the planet will be working to rectify this, with Fielibert suggesting that there should be some progress in the next 18 months or so.

So assuming you have an Ethernet port to plug into, you simply plug the base station into it (cable supplied). Then there’s a cradle for the phone that plugs into the mains power outlet. The phone itself is powered by two AAA batteries, which are again supplied. Turn the phone on and it will automatically open to the Skype sign-in page. If you’ve already got a Skype account, you enter your user name and password and you’re ready to go – all of your regular contacts will show up on the phone.

Skype has had some bad press of late, particularly when it informed some users that they would have to change their Skype In numbers. However, it’s still by far the easiest VoIP service to set up – the problem with open SIP standards, as my geek neighbour pointed out, is that they’re still not easy to set up for the average person, or even for technically-capable users for that matter.

A recent study by German traffic management vendor ipoque, which analysed three petabytes of anonymous data representing around 1 million users, concluded that Skype represents 95 percent of all VoIP traffic. The reason? Because it’s easy to use and gets around restrictive network environments such as corporate firewalls and NAT boxes. “While standards-based VoIP systems using SIP, H.323 and IAX require manual configuration to get around the resulting limitations, Skype has many built-in mechanisms to automatically deal with such network conditions and to offer an as seamless as possible operation in most environments,” the report noted.

That ease of use is clearly evident when using the Linksys iPhone. As I said, I simply plugged it in and it worked. The phone itself resembles a slightly-larger than usual mobile phone. It comes with a colour screen and the menu functions are all well-thought out. Click the “Contact” menu in the lower left and it will bring up all your regular Skype contacts. You can also set your status the same as you do on the computer, so if you want to show that you’re unavailable, you just select that option from the menu.

To make a call, you select the relevant contact and press the green call button on the phone. Everything sounds and acts like a regular call, including a dial-tone. I’ve tested it both internationally and locally, to other Skype connections and to regular phones, and the call quality has been mostly fantastic – better than my mobile connection a lot of the time. And as mentioned, it can also work as a regular phone through the fixed network, which is useful if there are other people in the household or business that are not on Skype.

Another thing to mention is that it’s actually a DECT phone rather than a Wi-Fi phone. DECT, as I’ve come to appreciate, provides better call quality than through Wi-Fi and also better coverage. I was shocked to see the wife using the phone from about 35 metres away through two walls and a ceiling, but reception was fine.

The other thing I really like about it is that it untethers you from the computer when using Skype. I’ve been a Skype user for years but haven’t really made use of it because I just like to pick up a phone and make a call. With this unit, I can do that. It has also encouraged me to get all of my regular contacts on Skype – not just signed up but actively logged in.

In fact, everybody that I’ve shown this device to wants one. That’s great for me, because it means more of the people I regularly call will also be logged into Skype and more accessible. For those that are not, I can use Skype Out or just go through the regular phone service.

Linksys is not the only one with this type of device. There are apparently similar phones from the likes of Philips, Siemens, Netgear and GE. That said, a friend bought one from one of the aforementioned vendors and still hasn’t got it working. Could be the gear, could also be the friend. What I do know is that Linksys has a good reputation for gear that’s easy to set up and use.

So if you’re after a neat gadget for someone this Christmas/New Year, look out for the Linksys CIT400 iPhone. – Geoff Long


Geek Master said...

Good review!
Like you said in the article, I also want one. Sound quality is excellent and looks nice too.

Your friendly neigbour

Unknown said...

Where you able to get it working with True ADSL? I'm still using their proprietary ADSL router which I'm afraid might hinder the skype phone from connecting to the internet.

Geoff Long said...

I only tried it with TOT connection, but True doesn't have a "proprietary" adsl modem. They just rebadge a standard dsl modem. What they may do is "traffic shape" Skype connections, which may hinder it, but I haven't heard any complaints about that. So . . . should be okay afaik.

4littlebyrds said...

I can't find any dualmode skype phones (linksys, Netgear, Phlips, etc) in Thailand. I am in Chiang Mai. Where did you get yours please.