A recent thread on TidBITS Talk mentioned the wide array of hardware devices one can use with a Skype account, the fact that many of them have limited Mac compatibility, and the dearth of information available to help Mac users choose among them. Since I recently went through the exercise of researching (and eventually purchasing) such hardware myself, I wanted to share my own experiences. I admit that my criteria for selecting telephone hardware are atypical, but I suspect that many of my findings will be generally useful nonetheless.
My own switch to Skype as a primary means of telephone communication was prompted by my recent move to France. Before the move, my wife and I looked long and hard at our telephone needs, since we knew we'd be spending lots of time on the phone with people back in North America. I'd resisted Skype for a long time because my only experience with it involved being inconveniently tethered to my computer with a wired headset, and I felt that the process of making and receiving calls exclusively with Skype would be needlessly inconvenient. But when I looked at Skype's prices compared to other providers, and the range of available hardware options, I realized I had been operating under some misconceptions. I could have a fairly painless telephone experience with Skype if I put the pieces together in the right way.
That decision made, we signed up for two personal SkypeIn numbers (plus one for our business) at $60 each per year, allowing us to receive phone calls from ordinary phones at U.S. phone numbers. We also got prepaid SkypeOut accounts, which let us make outgoing calls to ordinary phones (in every country we currently need to call) at 2.1 cents per minute. (Unfortunately, the terms of service for Skype Unlimited, which costs $29.95 per year for unlimited calls to the United States and Canada, don't permit its use from outside North America.)
Sifting Through the Hardware Options -- That left hardware - what sort of apparatus we'd use for audio input and output and dialing. This was a challenging puzzle to solve. The range of options is immense, but every piece of hardware required one or more tradeoffs among price, quality, and convenience. One consideration that factored strongly into our thinking was overall compactness. We'd decided to take with us only what could fit in our luggage in order to avoid the expense and hassle of shipping our possessions across the ocean in some other way, so eliminating bulk and weight (as well as any nonessential electrical items, which would require special adapters) was key.
Here are the options we considered and why we decided what we did:
- Wi-Fi handsets. Several different Skype-compatible Wi-Fi handsets exist (from SMC, Netgear, Belkin, Linksys, and Panasonic). They look and work pretty much like cell phones, except that they rely on a Wi-Fi network instead of a cellular network and give you access to your Skype account for both incoming and outgoing calls without requiring a computer at all. (Even though we brought four Macs with us to Paris, we thought it would be nice if they needn't be turned on, awake, and running Skype all the time just so we could receive phone calls.) Retail prices of these handsets range from about $160 to $360, though I've seen some discounted below $100. We knew we'd have Wi-Fi and plenty of bandwidth in our French apartment, so any of these would seemingly have done the trick, giving us all the convenience of regular cordless phones. Some of them can also recharge via USB, eliminating the need to pack a separate AC adapter. But even $100 (for each of us) was a bit steep, especially considering that all the currently available models have received decidedly mixed reviews. Users have complained about everything from audio quality to battery life, and we got the distinct sense that this whole product category was in a somewhat shaky first generation. This may prove to be an ideal option in a year or two, but for now, we felt the investment was too risky.
- Cordless phones. Another option would have been any of several cordless phones (from Philips, Netgear, and Linksys) with base stations that plug directly into an Ethernet connection. Like Wi-Fi phones, these eliminate the need for a computer - a big plus. The reviews I read suggested that their audio quality was higher and problems were fewer, while the price was comparable (ranging from about $150 to $180 at retail). All that was tempting, but it was still more than we wanted to pay - and there was still the problem of all those extra pieces of hardware (the base stations and the AC adapters).
Having ruled out the Wi-Fi handsets and cordless phones, we realized that we'd be stuck with devices that would require the use of a computer. However, we still had a wide range of options:
- Headsets. I already own a perfectly serviceable, Skype-compatible USB stereo headset with a microphone, the Plantronics .Audio 85. It has excellent sound quality for both input and output. But the cords drive me crazy. I don't mind so much when I'm sitting in front of my computer having a video chat, but I like to walk around while I'm talking on the phone. Besides, dragging out the headset and putting it on every time I had to make or receive a phone call - and using the on-screen interface to dial - wasn't my idea of convenience. Besides wired headset models from Plantronics, Logitech, and several lesser-known manufacturers, numerous wireless headsets exist (Bluetooth and otherwise). But the wireless models were a turn-off for me because of the need for an extra piece of apparatus (the charger) and the fact that none of the affordable models has sound quality adequate for speech recognition (something I'm playing with more these days). And even without the cord, I didn't feel like putting on a headset for every phone call.
- USB Phone Adapter. The Yealink USB-RJ11 Skype Adapter, which enables an ordinary corded telephone to be used for Skype calls, was another Mac-compatible device I considered. However, using this would have meant packing more hardware (the phones themselves and, if necessary, their base stations and AC adapters), so it wasn't ideal for us.
- USB Speakerphones. If we had been so inclined, we could have selected any of several USB speakerphones, including one that doubles as desktop stereo speakers and one styled like a conventional office telephone. Since we generally prefer to keep our conversations private, we opted to ignore these.
- USB Handsets. Available in both corded and cordless varieties, USB handsets have a keypad, microphone, and speaker (and usually an LCD display), just like most ordinary telephones. You can set them up so that they ring when a call comes in; you answer them (and dial outgoing calls) pretty much as you would with a conventional phone. They do require that your computer be turned on, awake, and running Skype, which may or may not be an inconvenience. But beyond that, this entire category of devices has one serious problem that the other categories don't: Mac compatibility is limited. Although we ultimately purchased corded USB handsets, that decision involved a number of interesting issues.
Simply performing the analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion of sound to operate the microphone and speaker, respectively, is not problematic: plenty of USB audio devices work brilliantly on any modern Mac without any extra drivers or other software at all. It's the connection to Skype in particular that requires software mediation - software is needed to take the input from the buttons on the handset and send them to Skype, or to tell the handset to ring when a Skype call comes in, for example. And few USB handsets offer such Mac software.
Choosing a Handset -- Skype's Web site lists three Mac-compatible USB handsets (all corded): The USRobotics USR9601 USB Internet Phone, the Simplyphone Classic, and IPEVO's Free-1, with software download links for each. Of these, only the USRobotics model was actually for sale on Skype's site, and at $57.95, it seemed awfully expensive for what it was. So I decided to look elsewhere.
A Google search led me to VON-Phone.com, which features a page with Mac-compatible Skype devices of all sorts, along with instructions and software download links. We decided to get two different Yealink corded models, both fairly basic (but also fairly cheap): a USB-P1K for $22.95 and a P8D for $29.95. I would have liked something cordless, of course, but a handset cord bothers me much less than headset cords, and in any case, the cordless options involved greater expense and more physical components than I preferred.
When the two phones arrived, I immediately installed the software and tried both of them out. The USB-P1K worked; the P8D did not - it appeared not to recognize the Mac software at all (or vice-versa). I sent an email message to VON-Phone.com, and the owner replied that he had just tried out the phone on his own Mac and had the same problem. He offered to send me a different Yealink model, the P5D, and didn't even mention that it sold for $10 more; I brought that up myself and offered to pay the difference. He sent the new phone the same day without waiting to get the old one back, and even included a postage-paid envelope for me to return the one that didn't work. Shortly thereafter, the P8D was removed from their list of Mac-compatible devices. That experience gave me warm fuzzy feelings about VON-Phone.com; it's exactly the way good customer service should work.
Hardware and Software Experiences -- Both of these phones use software from Yealink called SkyMACMate to enable the phones to talk to Skype - meaning that both programs must be running in order for you to use the handsets. SkyMACMate version 184.108.40.206 is a functional but unimpressive little program. Its single window gives you volume controls for speaker and microphone - and nothing else. If you want it to run all the time, you have to add it to your Login Items list manually. I'd have preferred a background application that was completely invisible, with a preference pane to adjust the settings if necessary. (Note that you must also configure Skype to use the handsets for input, output, and ringing by choosing USB Audio Device from each of the three pop-up menus in the Audio pane of Skype's Preferences window.)
With the software installed and running, the experience of using the two phones is remarkably different, despite their superficial similarities. With the USB-P1K, the handset is essentially a remote control for Skype's on-screen interface. That is to say, pressing the arrow keys makes the Skype application scroll through its contact list, and certain other keys similarly "pass through" to the equivalent buttons in the Skype windows. Numbers you dial on the phone's keypad do show up on its LCD display rather than on the screen, but otherwise it's somewhat disorienting to use the handset when you also have to look at something on your computer. The P5D, on the other hand, functions much more like a regular phone. Its LCD display lists the names in my Skype contact list, and I can scroll through them and call any of them without ever having to look at my computer screen.
Both phones have respectable, though not stellar, sound quality. They're about what you might expect for under $30: cheap plastic devices without a lot of attention to style, detail or extra features, but as corded phones go, we've found them entirely adequate.
I'm a bit less happy with the software situation. SkyMACMate is not a universal binary, though I'm unsure how much of a performance penalty that produces on my MacBook Pro. I've read numerous reports of problems with this software, but they appear to occur mainly with the use of the USB-RJ11 Skype Adapter mentioned earlier, rather than with handsets like we have. I have experienced a couple of random crashes, and there is some evidence to suggest that a memory leak is at fault, but as long as I quit and relaunch the program once a day or so, it seems to behave. Ordinarily I'd say that's more bother than I'd be willing to go through on behalf of poorly written software, but the other options available to me (such as replacing this with an entirely different brand) would also involve some bother, not to mention expense. I'll keep my fingers crossed for a software update.
The One and the Many -- Having done still more research since making my purchase, I've become aware of some interesting facts about Mac-compatible USB Skype handsets. Yealink, a smallish Chinese OEM, is the manufacturer of both the Simplyphone and USRobotics handset models, among numerous others, all of which use the same software - though Simplyphone rebrands theirs as CallMe. (The Yealink name, by the way, doesn't appear on their phones; some of them have the Radian brand and others, like the USB-P1K, are unbranded. The USRobotics USR9601 handset is the same as the P8D I had difficulties with, though it's unclear whether their branded version has any electronic differences that may enable it to work while the ones available from VON-Phone.com don't.)
Clearly, Mac software is not Yealink's core focus. But if you're unwilling to use the SkyMACMate software, you significantly reduce the number of Mac-compatible USB handsets from which you can choose. Other than Yealink-manufactured brands, I'm currently aware of several IPEVO models; the Keyspan Cordless Skype Phone; a few phones from Futiro; the Cyberphone W Mac (seemingly available only from the UK); and the Miglia Dialog+. I've tried none of these yet, so I can't comment on their performance or the robustness of their software.
Of course, I'm certainly in the minority in attributing such great importance to limiting the number, size, and weight of my gadgets. If you don't mind having an extra box or two, a USB phone adapter may be more to your liking, and if your budget is higher than ours was, you can bypass the Mac software issue entirely by buying one of the cordless Skype phones that plugs directly into an Ethernet connection.