Price: $199 (MSRP), before $50 mail-in rebate (available through 12/31/09)
Pros: good audio and video quality; easy to use with simple touch-screen interface; built-in battery offers limited mobility
Cons: lacks 802.11n support; doesn’t store multiple Skype accounts or receive Skype chats
If you’re a fan of Skype, chances are you use it not just for voice calls, but video calls too. While you can place Skype voice calls from around the house via a variety of mobile devices like Wi-Fi/cordless handsets, smartphones, or even the iPod Touch or iPhone, video calls require you to stay within visual range of a webcam-equipped PC– that is, unless you have the Asus Videophone Touch AiGuru SV1T, a stand-alone Wi-Fi device that frees you to make Skype video calls without the invisible tether.
Design and Specs
The $199 SV1T, which is available in white or charcoal, has a curvy shape that resembles a techno-prop you might see on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It takes up minimal space, measuring roughly 10 x 7.9 x 4.8 (HWD, inches) and weighing 3 1/2 pounds. Front and center on the SV1T sits a 7-inch, 800 x 480 pixel, touch-enabled LCD display, while atop that is an embedded 0.3 megapixel (640 x 480) camera, the same kind typically included with notebooks these days. Below the SViT’s display are some dedicated pushbutton controls along with a single monaural speaker, while on the back of the unit you’ll find the power button, a 10/100 Ethernet port (which can be used in lieu of Wi-Fi) and jacks for an external microphone and headphones. The unit’s power supply is a small external brick, and while there is a cooling fan built into the back of the SV1T, it’s barely audible even in a quiet room.
Setup and Use
When you first fire up the SV1T, a wizard takes you through the process of getting connected to a Wi-Fi network and logged into Skype. If you don’t already have a Skype account, you can create one from the SV1T. The SV1T supports 802.11g (N would have been better), and its on-screen keyboard makes it easy to enter long WEP/WPA/WPA2 encryption keys. After the initial setup process and login are complete, you’re dropped into a simple, attractive interface that you can manipulate either through the touch screen or the pushbutton controls. The SV1T’s menus don’t give you all the configurable options you get with the Skype Windows software—not all of them are applicable—but you can easily do stuff all the important stuff like browse and manage your contacts, configure privacy settings, set online status (e.g. Away, Do Not Disturb, etc.) and of course, place calls and receive calls, including audio-only calls for times you’d rather be heard and not seen. If you subscribe to SkypeOut or SkypeIn service, you can use the SV1T to make or receive (respectively) calls from landline and mobile phones, and have incoming calls sent to voice mail. (An in-box promotion code provides some free SkypeOut minutes.) A blinking ring around the Home button alerts you to any missed calls and/or waiting messages.
A particularly handy feature of the SV1T is the included Lithium Ion battery that snaps into the unit’s base. While it’s only rated for 20 minutes of talk time or 30 minutes on standby, it’s nice to have a modicum of mobility while you’re engaged in a call, and at the very least you get the convenience of being able to relocate the unit between rooms without having to go through the shutdown/startup process.
The SV1T has a few irksome qualities. For example, it can only remember info for a single Skype account, so if two people want to share the device, each one must retype their username and password every time they want to use it. Another SV1T idiosyncrasy is that it receive support Skype IMs, so if you’re sent one and not logged in to Skype somewhere besides the SV1T (e.g. a PC), the IM will go unseen into the ether and you may have to explain to someone why you were “ignoring” them.
Call quality on the SV1T was quite good, with smooth incoming video that– despite the relatively meager specs of the internal camera– was generally free of blockiness or other visual artifacts. The same could be said of audio, which was clear, easily understandable, and distortion free even when the volume was turned up to the maximum. (The SV1T’s speaker can achieve enough volume to be heard over moderate background noise.) Parties on the other end of calls cited good video and audio quality as well, and reported an absence of the annoying speaker feedback that is often a problem when using webcam-based microphones (i.e. no headset) on a PC.
Many PC webcams are able to eke out a decent image in low light situations, but the SV1T’s camera, like most embedded webcams, doesn’t handle them too well. In anything other than a reasonably bright room the SV1T’s source video tends to look like something out of the witness protection program, with your visage unrecognizable through the gloom. Adjusting the SV1T angle relative to an available light source can sometimes help—you can tilt it from about 45 to 90 degrees fore and aft on its base. It would be nice if the SV1T could also rotate Lazy Susan-style, but such adjustments must be made manually.
Better a Netbook?
The SV1T’s $200 price tag is close enough to that of a basic netbook to make you wonder whether spending the extra money for a device that can do more than just Skype makes sense. While a netbook will undoubtedly offer more versatility than the SV1T, it won’t provide same degree of Skype call quality. As a comparison, we ran Skype on a garden-variety netbook with an Atom N270 processor and 1 GB RAM (the kind you might pick up for as little as $270 these days) and found that not only was the incoming video frame rate noticeably inferior (the meager CPU has not just Skype to deal with but Windows too), the tinny output from the netbook’s speakers couldn’t match the volume or clarity of the SV1T. Also, for non-techies, the camera’s UI will be much easier to use than Skype’s Windows software. It’s also worth noting that $50 mail-in-rebate (available through 12/31/09) knocks the SV1T’s effective price down to half that of a netbook.
The bottom line is that the Asus Videophone Touch AiGuru SV1T is a good option for someone who wants the ability to use Skype video in a room where a PC isn’t needed or desired.