Gadget Showdown: Skype Wi-Fi Phones

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Itís often hard to keep track of what exactly constitutes a phone these days. Never mind that the shapes and functions of cell phones change monthly, or that itís now okay in certain cases to call a USB keychain a ďphone.Ē There are now devices that connect to Wi-Fi networks to provide low-cost, Skype Internet phone service. Theyíre not portable like cell phones, since you need to be in a Wi-Fi network to use them, but they can be handy at home (that is, a home with a broadband connection and a Wi-Fi router) or in public places that do offer Wi-Fi.

One of the most eagerly anticipated such "phones" is the Mylo, which Sony calls a "personal communicator." Most Sony watchers may be more focused on the delayed but imminent arrival of its PlayStation 3, but the company is at the moment bursting with other interesting products such as the Mylo.

When closed, the Mylo looks like a miniaturized sci-fi hovercraft, concealing a slide-out QWERTY keyboard for typing messages. Itís as if Sony developers looked at T-Mobileís Sidekick and said, ďWe should build that, only sleeker.Ē To be fair to the Sidekick, the Mylo canít make standard cell calls, nor does it handle e-mail at all, but it does have a web browser, several instant messaging programs and Skype phone service. If you have a free Skype account, you can just enter your username and password, and it will bring up your contacts list. You can add any additional contacts on the fly. Many Skype users pay for credits to allow them to call standard phone numbers, and you can use those credits with Mylo. Because it has a browser, you can even log in and manage your account, though it may be easier to do it with your PC. (While I could read the news on the browser, it wasnít something Iíd look forward to doing on a daily basis.)

The Mylo isn't just a practical device, it's fun — in addition to its many communications features, it can play songs and video clips, and show photo slideshows. (You have to load content onto Memory Sticks with special software.) Its screen is bright and has great resolution, and thereís even a notepad program for free typing. Its feel, clearly derived from the PSP, is natural, though like a game controller it takes some getting used to at first. My biggest complaint is itís got Google Talk and Yahoo! Messenger, but itís missing the big one: AOL Instant Messenger. My hope is that this will come along with version 2.0 of the software, and that anyone who buys it will be able to upgrade. Skype users may be upset that it doesnít have a built-in speakerphone, though for the money, it does come with headphones.

Mylo may be the best designed Skype phone out there, but $350 means you had better also use it as your iPod, your family photo album and your personal journal. If you are interested in Skype — most popular among expatriates who want to keep in touch with the home soil without going broke — but donít like sitting in front of your laptop, there are some other Skype phones soon to hit the market.

The Belkin and the Netgear are practically identical on the inside — menus and icons are the same in nearly every way. I didnít detect any noticeable difference in sound quality from one phone to the other, during calls. The exterior buttons are even aligned the same, though Netgear has managed to fit everything into a slightly smaller body, albeit with a brighter, better looking screen.

If you showed me both the Belkin and the Netgear, and I knew nothing of the cost, I would choose the Netgear, because of its glossy, slender body. But if you told me that the Netgear has a list price that's $50 higher than the Belkin, Iíd probably reach for the matte-black Belkin instead. In either case youíll be able to make all the free calls you want to other Skype users, and even pay Skypeís nominal rates to call that more traditional sort of phone — for as long as it still exists.