Internet phone handsets

Synopsis:

From the spring of 2007, this piece explains the different types of 'internet phone' handset available, and what you might need to consider when you're buying.

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The cost of phone calls has come down tremendously in recent years, thanks in part to technology that makes it possible to send them over the internet, instead of dedicated phone lines. And with an internet phone handset, not only can you take advantage of the low cost of calling, but you can also use your broadband internet to give you a second phone line – so the kids or the home office can have a separate number, without having to pay line rental to the phone company. But not all internet phone handsets are equal – so in this feature we’ll explain the options, and what you should look for when you choose a phone.

Before we look too closely at internet phone handsets, let’s take a look at exactly what internet telephony is. As you’ll know, when you connect to the internet, you usually pay a monthly fee, and – as long as you don’t have any download limits on your connection – you can look at whatever you like, for as long as you like. There’s no difference between looking at a web page in your city or one on the other side of the world – once you have a link to the internet, there are no charges based on distance.

Of course, that’s completely the opposite to normal telephones, where you’ll pay more for an international call than a local one. Internet telephony works by turning your voice into a digital form and sending it over the internet until it’s as close a possible to the destination, then putting it back on the traditional phone network. That means that you often cut out the expensive international links.

On top of that, internet phone companies let you call their other customers free – so if you and your aunt in Melbourne both use the same service, you can make free calls to each other. Most will even let you choose which country and city you have a ‘real’ phone number in, so you can look as if you’re somewhere else entirely.

%%What’s on offer%% So, internet telephony has some real advantages, but what’s involved, and what do you need to look for when you’re shopping? We’re looking at products that make internet phone calls as easy as picking up your existing phone; you just pick them up and dial a national or international number, and you’re done.

That’s the basics – but, as you’d expect – there are bells and whistles available, and different options will suit different people. There’s a wide range of products on the market, from around £30 upwards. At the simplest, you can buy a small adaptor – often called an ATA, or Analogue Telephone Adaptor – that plugs into your broadband router and has a phone socket into which you can plug any existing phone. If you have a spare phone, this is often the cheapest way to start using internet telephony.

Useful features to look for include ‘fail over’ and ‘pass through.’ The first means that when the broadband link is down, the phone will be connected to your ordinary line, and the second that incoming calls on your ordinary line will ring on the phone too. You’ll find these features on other internet phones too, most often on those that use the cordless DECT standard, and for safety and convenience, we think both should be high on your shopping list.

Some adaptors can also be programmed to send certain numbers – 999 for example – over the existing phone line, or have a built in web interface so that you can create short dialling codes, eg #44 for the local Pizza delivery. If you’re considering buying a new broadband router, you can also find some – like the Zyxel 2602, or the AVM’s FritzBox Voice – that have an analogue phone adaptor built in, so you just have one box to plug into the wall.

Internet phones

The next type of product to consider is a genuine ‘internet phone.’ These, broadly speaking, fall into two types. There are ones designed to work with the Skype service, and others. Skype uses its own protocol, and while that makes it much simpler to set up, it means you can’t change to a different phone company for cheaper calls.

When you’re looking for a phone to use with Skype one important thing to check is whether or not the phone can be used without your computer on; for example, the £46.95 Philips VoIP 321 cordless phone works with both Skype and your home phone line – but it has to be plugged into the PC , with the PC running, for Skype calls to work. A cordless Skype phone that works without your PC, plugging directly into you network, will cost you around £99, for models like the DualPhone 3088.

Other features to check for include whether or not there are lights or on-screen indicators to tell you when you have messages waiting, and how flexible the phone book is; some can even be linked to the PC to synchronise with your address book there, for example.

Beyond Skype

Some internet phone companies, like Sipgate and Vonage, offer phones and adaptors that come pre-configured to work with their service. If you’re buying from one of these companies, ask if you can alter the settings, or if, like Skype, the equipment will only work with them.

SIP phones (see the box) connect to your network, with no need for the PC to be turned on, and are usually set up via a web browser. Look at the manual online if you can, and see how easy configuration and setting up the phone book will be.

Useful things to look out for are extra Ethernet sockets, so you can put the phone between your PC and your broadband router, without taking up any extra sockets on the router, and support for multiple SIP accounts so you can program the phone with different numbers – business and personal for instance.

A cordless DECT SIP phone like the Siemens C460IP costs around £82 – and, unlike most SIP phones it can also link to your existing line – while a basic desktop SIP phone like Grandstream’s Budgetone 101 is only £47. There are also phones that connect via WiFi access points – but watch out; entering the wireless login details is often complicated and the WiFi phones we’ve tested often don’t even last overnight if they’re left switched on.

Finally – remember that there’s one thing that you need to check whichever internet phone service you’re planning to use – the cost. While calls to other users may be free, watch out for monthly fees to have a real phone number, and don’t assume that just because it’s using the internet, it’ll be the cheapest way to make phone calls.

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