Internet-based telephony is a technology that’s been available and evolving for years now, and you may be familiar with Skype , one of the numerous applications that provide you the ability to make no- or low-cost phone calls from a PC via the Net. The newest version of this application— Skype for Pocket PC Version 1.0— sets the bar higher, promising to let you make phone calls via the Internet with a Wi-Fi-enabled PDA.
You might initially wonder (as I did) why you would want to make phone calls from a PDA when just about everyone walks around with a mobile phone on his or her hip. While it’s true that you couldn’t reasonably expect Skype and a wireless PDA to take the place of a real phone, there are certain circumstances where it could potentially prove a useful supplement to one. As anyone who has gone over on their monthly cell phone minutes can likely attest, the cost for doing so can be quite dear—usually ranging between 15 and 40 cents per extra minute, depending on your plan.
Therefore, making at least some calls from a PDA can be attractive as a means to help reduce one’s monthly cell phone minute usage (and thus avoid nasty unexpected charges). Similarly, given that overseas calls—particularly via mobile phone— can be very pricey, placing these calls via Skype for Pocket PC and a wireless PDA would prove an economical alternative.
Skype for PocketPC is available for download at www.skype.com. The free download is an unrestricted version and there’s no registration fee for ongoing use. On the PC, Skype provides instant messaging as well as the ability to conduct five-person conference calls, but only the former feature is available on the Pocket PC version.
Like the PC version, you can use Skype for Pocket PC to make an unlimited number of voice calls to other Skype software users. On the other hand, if you want to call landline or mobile phones, a service called SkypeOut provides this capability and lets you place calls to the PSTN
Also, the SkypeOut service assesses per-minute charges based on the call destination only, and unlike cell phone minutes, the fees don’t change based on day or time of day.
The SkypeOut Global Rate of 1.7 Euro cents per minute covers the continental United States, all of Western Europe, Australia, parts of South America, and Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. The per-minute cost for calls to other areas around the globe varies, and in most locations (but not the U.S.) the rate is slightly higher when calling a mobile phone.
To make calls via SkypeOut, you can pre-purchase credit in increments of 10, 25, or 50 Euros. The cost in US dollars will fluctuate depending on the current exchange rate, and at the time of this writing, it was about 1.7 euro cents to .02 US, so 10 Euros worth of time (a tick less than 10 hours worth of calling at the Global Rate) would cost about $12.18.
Installation and Setup
Skype for Pocket PC runs on Windows Mobile 2003 or Pocket PC 2003-based PDAs (no Palm support currently) and a 400 MHz CPU—though the 400 MHz clock speed is alternately listed as a requirement and a recommendation on the Skype Web site. This clock speed could be a problem for many prospective users, because while 400MHz+ PDAs certainly do exist, they’re still found predominantly in higher-end models.
Much more common (at least currently) are processors in the 300 MHz range (like one variant of the Dell Axim X30), or even 200 MHz on entry-level devices. Furthermore, most users can be expected to commonly operate their devices in power saving modes that will run the processor significantly slower than top speed, so continually operating a PDA at 400 MHz for purposes of using Skype could significantly shorten the battery life of the unit.
For my testing I used Skype for Pocket PC on two different PDA devices. First was an Asus MyPAL A620bt with a 400 MHz Intel PXA255 CPU, using a D-Link DCF-660W 802.11b CompactFlash Wi-Fi card. I also tried Skype on a Dell Axim X30 with built-in Wi-Fi. The Dell only had a 312 MHz CPU, but tried it under the supposition that its newer Intel PXA270 chip might compensate for the 88MHz deficit.
Installing and setting up Skype for Pocket PC on the PDA devices and then signing up for the service was simple— no firewall configuration is necessary to use the software and the interface is very similar to the PC version. It’s well laid out for use with a stylus.
Setting up the contact list can be an effort, however. Unlike AIM which stores the contents of a Buddy List in a central location, the Skype contact list is stored locally. This means that if you want to use your Skype account on multiple devices (like a PC as well as your PDA) you have to recreate each contact entry on the new device (the software lacks a contact list export/import feature.)
The good news is that using Skype to place voice calls to Skype users or via SkypeOut was easy to do. In almost all cases, attempts to connect calls were successful (the software indicated a connection and the recipient received a call).
The bad news is that actually conducting a two-way voice call via the software was an exercise in extreme frustration, and for all intents and purposes impossible.
But in spite of the quick connection, at no time was a recipient ever able to hear my voice, or indeed determine that there was even a human being on the other end of the line. Recipients reported hearing buzzes, clicks, pops, or complete silence, in lieu of my voice. I could hear my callers’ voices somewhat better, but the audio was still punctuated by countless garbled, dropped, and even out-of-order audio fragments. Imagine trying to futilely communicate with someone over a very bad cell phone connection and you’ll have a good idea of what using Skype for Pocket PC was like.
These problems were omnipresent on both the Asus and Dell PDAs and on four different Wi-Fi networks (one was a public hotspot). Indeed, after a few hours attempting to use the software I found myself longing for the comparative reliability of the cellular phone network.
Since using Skype on a “real” PC is significantly more reliable (as evidenced by its considerable user base), it suggests that the problems are specific to the PocketPC version, or at least related to the limitations of the PocketPC platform.
For example, Skype recommends using a headset with all versions of the software for best results, and on a conventional PC you can use a headset with boom microphone that uses either a dedicated analog MIC jack or a USB port. However, while all Pocket PCs have a headphone jack, none that I’ve ever seen provide a MIC port, which relegates you to using the device’s integrated microphone. This fact alone may account for the recipients of my calls being unable to hear me.
Skype for Pocket PC’s promise of being able to make low-cost phone calls around the globe from a Wi-Fi- enabled PDA is an attractive one. Unfortunately, depending on the software for this purpose doesn’t seem very realistic—don’t expect this to be your mission-critical phone on the road.
While it’s not clear whether this is the fault of the Skype software or simply the nature of wireless voice communication on a relatively low horsepower PDA, in the end it almost doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that you can’t really count on Skype for Pocket PC to make reliable calls, at least not at the moment.
Since Skype for Pocket PC is a free download, there’s little to lose (other than some time) by checking it out, and the software (and PDA performance) will likely improve over time. If you can convince your circle of friends and colleagues to use it, it would make a serviceable and economical IM platform (in comparison, you must actually pay $20 to buy the Pocket PC version of AIM.) And Skype’s PR people claims that the “majority of our Skype for Pocket PC users enjoy the software with absolutely no issues.”
But at least for now, if you’re hoping Skype for Pocket PC version 1.0 will turn your PDA into a usable telephony device, you might want to Skype it— I mean skip it.