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How to: Use iPod touch to Make Voice Calls

For many, purchasing an Apple iPhone from AT&T Wireless just isn't feasible. Maybe you (like me) already have a personal or employer cellular contract with another carrier. Maybe you (like me) don't have decent AT&T coverage where you live, work, and play. Or maybe you (like me) simply don't like carrier-exclusive deals that impose multi-year commitments.

If you've been hankering to join the "iPhone party" without signing up for a cellular contract, consider this alternative: combine a second or third-generation iPod touch with a mobile 3G/Wi-Fi router and use VoIP to make calls at a fraction of the cost or commitment. This tutorial explains what's required to make this fly—and how the result falls short of a genuine iPhone.

Step 1: Get a voice-compatible iPod touch

For starters, you'll need an iPod touch that supports microphone input. A new 8 GB second-generation touch starts at $199; a 64GB third-generation unit tops out at $399. Or save a few bucks on a refurbished second-generation unit—but avoid first-generation iPod touches that lack microphone input. Third-generation units have a faster processor, more memory, and factory-supplied earphones with an integrated microphone. When writing this tutorial, I used a second-generation 16GB touch with the very same Apple earphones ($29).

Consider combining your iPod touch with compatible third-party (wired) microphone-integrated headsets—for example, TouchMic sells Macally and Maximo headsets and a lapel-pin microphone adapter. Doing so can be a worthy investment for mobile VoIP users, since Apple's standard earphones pick up plenty of background noise (see below) and are not terribly comfortable over long periods.

Alas, it is NOT possible to combine the iPod touch with a Bluetooth hands-free headset or automotive calling system. Even though the iPhone uses the same Bluetooth chipset and OS, the Hands-Free Profile (HFP) and Phone Book Access Profile (PBAP) are disabled on the iPod touch. A touch with 3.1 firmware can only pair with Bluetooth devices using A2DP stereo, AVRCP remote control, and PAN profiles. In other words, you can listen to and control music through a Bluetooth headset, but you can't listen to or make phone calls through a Bluetooth headset as you can on an iPhone. This alone makes on-the-move calling far less convenient on an iPod touch.

Step 2: Get a mobile Internet connection

Using VoIP on a stationary iPod touch is not particularly challenging. If you just want to participate in calls when sitting near a home or hotspot WLAN, skip to the next step. But mobile VoIP requires sustained Internet data connectivity—in other words, a functional replacement for the iPhone's always-on 3G voice and data services.

I tried two solutions: Novatel's MiFi “intelligent mobile hotspot” ($99.99) and Morose Media’s WMWiFiRouter ($29.99), installed on my Motorola Q9m phone. Both successfully routed data (including VoIP) between my iPod touch and Verizon's EV-DO mobile broadband network. Either solution can be used with a choice of 3G carriers, bypassing the iPhone's AT&T-exclusive strangle-hold. I also considered tethering to a cell phone, but found the iPod touch could not use a cell phone as a dial-up modem (the inverse of tethering an international iPhone 3GS).ipodTouch_sm.jpg

WMWiFiRouter runs only on Windows Mobile devices. Running on my Q9m, download speeds maxed out around  60 KBps (480 Kbps) over EV-DO. But handsets and Wi-Fi cards impact performance; at least one reader reports achieving full EV-DO speeds using WMWiFiRouter on his Windows Mobile device. In any case, throughput is more of a concern for Web browsing; voice is more affected by the latency encountered when reaching EV-DO through any Wi-Fi/3G router. 

Nonetheless, the WMWiFiRouter software let me extend my MotoQ's 3G Internet access to my iPod touch—a no-commitment way to try mobile VoIP. I found the MiFi faster and more reliable, but using it requires either an annual 3G contract or $15 day passes. If the (iPod touch + MiFi + VoIP) calling experience was on par with cellular, I might retire my cell phone. Since that wasn't the case, I'll use the MiFi when traveling as a more flexible alternative to a paid day at any fixed Wi-Fi hotspot.

One way in which this combo falls short: any Wi-Fi connection supporting an always-on VoIP presence chows down on power. Inactivity timeouts can conserve battery when using interactive data apps over Wi-Fi, but that's not an option if you want be continuously reachable for VoIP calls and instant messages. Whether this is a show-stopper depends upon your calling patterns and proximity to a power source (e.g., in-car/in-seat charger). But if you're on the go full-time, you're likely to be running on empty before your workday ends.

Whether you love or hate VoIP over Wi-Fi, a 3G/Wi-Fi router still makes your iPod touch far more useful. Many iPhone apps take advantage of always-on 3G. Those same apps may run on the iPod touch, but many just don't work (well) without Internet access. For example, iPhones can supply their location using Skyhook's GPS positioning and Wi-Fi triangulation. The iPod touch lacks GPS, but can supply its location in populous areas using Wi-Fi triangulation—when it can reach Skyhook. Apps like Google Earth and Coffee Finder scream for a mobile 3G/Wi-Fi router to reach their full potential on an iPod touch.