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.

Step 3: Download your favorite VoIP app



Given an iPod touch with earphones/microphone and Wi-Fi Internet access, it’s time to install a VoIP app. There are many alternatives: some free, some paid, and many priced by feature and destination. Before you start downloading VoIP apps from the Apple App Store to your iPod touch (over Wi-Fi of course!) here are a few things to consider:



  • Do you need to use Internet-standard SIP to interface with a business VoIP system, or are you open to a proprietary consumer voice service?
  • Do you want a unified client that uses a common dashboard to integrate voice calls, instant messages, and chat sessions that originate from different providers?
  • Do you need to enter DTMF tones during your calls (e.g., to interact with voicemail)?
  • Do you need to receive incoming calls and instant messages?
  • Where are you most likely to use VoIP, and who will you call the most often?
  • How much are you willing to pay for calls and related features, such as voicemail, and what limitations are you willing to tolerate for “free” services?

To illustrate these considerations, let’s look at a few VoIP apps that won’t cost you a penny to install on a compatible iPod touch.


Skype: This popular app supports free calls and chat over Wi-Fi to/from other Skype users. But calls or texts to/from non-Skype numbers will cost you. For example, unlimited calls to the US and Canada start at $2.95/month; a SkypeIn number starts at $6/month. This focused app works reasonably well on an iPod touch, with one big limitation: incoming calls and chats head straight to voicemail if the Skype app isn’t open. This is caused by lack of OS multi-tasking support, but some other apps work around this using notifications (see below).


Skype-Truphone_sm.jpg


Nimbuzz: This app is a mobile communications integrator, linking to your SIP provider or Skype account for voice calls and linking to your GoogleTalk, AIM, Yahoo!, Facebook, or other “community” accounts to deliver telepresence and chat. While you won’t pay to use Nimbuzz, you must establish an account with a third-party VoIP provider to make or receive calls. For example, I configured Nimbuzz to receive calls and chats destined for my SkypeIn number or my SIPGate number. Nimbuzz can also be configured to “stay online” and receiving incoming notifications after closing—but unfortunately this does not work for Skype calls.


Fring: This app is also a mobile communications integrator, conceptually similar to Nimbuzz. Fring can be linked to Skype or SIP services for voice calls and a wide variety of social networking and instant messaging/chat services, including Twitter. I tried Fring in a fashion similar to Nimbuzz and spotted at least one important difference: incoming Skype calls trigger audible/visible notifications. But the end result isn’t ideal—if Fring is open, you can answer the call; if Fring is closed, you can only open a chat window which tells you who called—and gives you one button to push to return the call.


Nimbuzz-Fring_sm.jpg


Truphone: This app both uses and competes with Skype. Truphone supports free calls to other Truphone users and (when linked to a Skype or Google Voice account) free calls to other Skype/Google users. Calls to other numbers incur usage fees on a per-minute or monthly subscription basis. Truphone can exchange instant messages with those services, plus AIM, MSN, and Yahoo! Truphone’s big difference is its ability to route an international call over 3G to a local Truphone server, thereby reducing costs on a 3G phone (like an iPhone), but this feature is not relevant on the iPod touch. Truphone (and Skype) also let you enter DTMF tones during a call— not always well, but at least they try, unlike many other apps.


iCall: This ad-supported app lets you make free outgoing calls from your iPod touch, after you listen to a 15-20 second advertisement. Free (five-minute max) incoming calls can be received when using iCall on a PC, but incoming calls are not available on an iPod touch without a Total Access subscription ($9.95/month). I found that calls placed from my iPod touch via iCall displayed a surprising Caller ID number: the landline number I had supplied during sign-up. Presumably this would not be so for Total Access subscribers that would get their own dial-in number.


These are just a few of the VoIP-over-Wi-Fi apps freely available for the iPod touch. There are others available at low-cost through the App Store—examples include the Acrobits SIP softphone ($7.99) and the iPico SIP Client ($9.99). “Unapproved” SIP clients like Siphon and iTalk are also available through Cydia for installation on jail-broken iPhones and iPod touches.


Step 4: Evaluate call quality and usability


If you’ve reached this point, it’s time to consider how well you like using VoIP over Wi-Fi on your iPod touch. When I embarked upon this tutorial, I had high hopes. After a few months of experimentation in several cities, mostly using a Verizon-based MiFi, I have reluctantly concluded that I cannot use my iPod touch as my primary cell phone. I will continue using VoIP on my iPod touch to reduce cellular voice minute consumption and international and text messaging charges. But I will still receive incoming mobile voice calls on my cell phone.


Many reasons have already been mentioned, including lack of hands-free Bluetooth headset support, inability to directly answer incoming calls during normal iPod use, and the call duration limits I imposed to conserve battery life. There are a few more things you can do on an iPhone that you can’t on an iPod touch, such as dialing directly from the iPod’s contact or mail app (as opposed to dialing from contacts imported into a VoIP app). Or using the iPod’s non-existent camera to snap a quick photo of a contact.


Don’t get me wrong: I love my iPod touch and will continue using it extensively to perform many other tasks over Wi-Fi. But, for me, the clincher was voice call quality. In my experience, Skype over Wi-Fi quality was acceptable when stationary—whether using my iPod touch at home or at a hotspot or just sitting still with a 3G/Wi-Fi router. But quality noticeably declined during calls from a moving car. Judge for yourself by listening to this example.


A big contributor is the background noise picked up by my standard Apple earphone+mic. However, calls over Wi-Fi routed onto a 3G network, without end-to-end QoS controls, often suffer from latency and jitter. I found this tolerable when using Skype for personal calls (either directly or via Nimbuzz or Fring). But, at least in my neck of the woods, motion really destroyed the free calls that I placed using Truphone or iCall. [Listen to a sample iCall call here.]


Of course, your experiences may differ. I did not run rigorous comparative tests over a large area or formally measure call quality—the above clips are just typical of my individual experience. I strongly encourage you to evaluate your own iPod touch call quality by dialing each provider’s test call number and recording voicemail from locations you frequent. If VoIP service is satisfactory where you need it, but background noise is a problem, consider upgrading to a better iPod touch/iPhone 3G-compatible headset/microphone.


Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. Lisa has been testing mobile wireless phones since the late ’90s, when her then-cutting-edge AT&T PocketNet CDPD phone sent e-mail at the lightening-fast data rate of 19.2 Kbps.


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