Thursday, December 13, 2007

The 3 Skypephone Review

Just under a month ago I was lent two Skypephones by the UK network operator 3. They're scheduled to go back in a week or so, so I thought I'd sit down and write up what I think of the handset and perhaps more importantly, what the appearance of the first not only officially sanctioned, but heavily promoted, VoIP application on a phone targeted at the average consumer means for the industry.

Like most first offerings there are problems here that aren't really symptomatic of the concept, but are because when you're rolling out new hardware, or new software, there are always problems. So despite the large amount of criticism I'm going to level at the Skypephone in this post I want to make it clear that it's a decent handset. Not too flashy, but decent enough, and the Skype application works well.

Lets start on the hardware. As I've mentioned before, the handsets are small, light, and fit easily into your pocket. Although it's not the most attractive phone in the world, compared to Nokia's N-series or the Apple iPhone it is clunky and somewhat dated. But it's a solid enough handset and the rubberised case feels quite good in your hand. Ergonomically, you can't complain.

What you can complain about is the screen, I've had the handset less than a month and the screen is scratched quite badly. The phone hasn't been dropped, or suffered any major trauma, it's been in the same pocket as my Nokia N80 and my iPod touch. I've had the Nokia for just over a year and it's far less bashed about than the Skypephone. The iPod touch I've had for only a little longer than the Skypephone, and it's probably seen more trauma than the Skypephone, after all 3's handset was only on loan. There isn't a scratch on my iPod's screen, but the Skypephone's screen has taken a serious beating.

I got fed up years ago trying to keep my portable electronics in little protective cases, if they can't handle the day to day knocks and bumps then it falls by the way side fairly quickly. If you actually have to coddle something that's been designed to go in your pocket, then it hasn't been designed well.

I haven't dared put the Skypephone through something like the stress test PC World gave the iPhone. I'm not sure it'd give a good account of itself, and I do have to put it back in the post in a few days in more or less one piece.

Next up, software. The handset's operating system isn't really as polished as the latest Nokia, or the iPhone. This is especially apparent when it comes to browsing the web. Compared to my iPod touch or Apple's iPhone, web browsing on 3's Skypephone is a joke. I'm not interested in 3's walled garden, but found myself more or less restricted to it because the web browser that comes with the phone did such a remarkably bad job of rendering web pages.

Of course part of the problem is the screen, it's small, and the number of pixel per inch isn't anything like the iPhone, and to be fair that's okay. This isn't a smart phone, or at least it isn't what passes as a smart phone these days. Okay, so you can browse the web, but that isn't why you'd buy a 3 Skypephone is it? You'd buy it because it has Skype...

The main question you have to ask about something marketed as a Skypephone is how well does it handle Skype, the answer is pretty well. The few calls I've actually managed to make have had fairly good voice quality, although there is sometimes noticeable lag between sending and receiving that (as a heavy VoIP user) came as a bit of a surprise to me.

Which brings me to my main problem with the handset, which again I've mentioned before, and isn't anything to do with the handset itself. It's to do with the network the handset is on, I can't get any coverage. I was loaned two handsets, I had one, and my wife had the other. The places where there isn't any 3 coverage is getting rather long: our house, her parent's house, her office, my office, the cities and towns we visit regularly. The list of places where there is coverage is considerably shorter, and that's bad. Although to be fair there basically isn't any mobile phone reception in our village at all, between us my wife and I have Orange, O2 and T-Mobile handsets, and none of them work either. So there at least, it's not just 3 that's got a problem.

Of course with only having the phone on loan I wasn't really prepared to move "my life" onto the new handset, although to be fair I'd have found it hard. The phone isn't supported by Mac OSX, so it would be difficult to sync my contacts and calendars onto the phone, and perhaps I just haven't given the handset a fair chance because of that problem? After all, without all that information the handset is just a brick that can make telephone calls, admittedly a small and cute brick.

My final swipe at this handset is of course, standards. You only have to go to Google too see the controversy around the proprietary peer-to-peer Skype versus centralised, but standards based, SIP debate. There are a lot of criticisms of the proprietary Skype protocol, but I'd probably argue that Skype and SIP attack different problems. Despite advertising Skype is not a SIP-killer, nor despite the outcry of the open source community is SIP the answer to Skype.

That said I find 3's decision to go with Skype for a VoIP rollout curious, has Skype already got the mind share in the consumer market to make it so attractive? Surely a network operator, who lives and dies by standards, would have been more attracted to a SIP solution. Why isn't this the Gizmo phone for instance?

I think that's a telling point, and it's going to be interesting to see how this works out when 3's exclusivity agreement with Skype runs out. Are other operators going to jump on the band wagon, are they going to go with SIP. Are they going to, unsuccessfully, ignore the whole thing?

As I mentioned earlier today I think we're at a tipping point, and the 3 Skypephone is a symptomatic. VoIP on mobile handsets is here to stay and you only have to look at Nokia's commitment to putting SIP stacks on their new handsets, despite operator pressure not to, to realise that.

But despite all these complaints, am I going to regret saying goodbye to my Skypephones? Probably...

If you're interested in trying out a handset yourself, the guys over at, the people than gave me the loaner handsets, are running a little competition. I'll let them explain it themselves...

We at are running a little competition - the winner gets three 3 Skypephones, second place gets two and third place gets one. Also two devices will be awarded to the blog that refers the winning entry.

All entrants need to do is tell us why they want a 3 Skypephone – and it can be done however they want as long as it can be linked to. For example, it could be a blog post, forum thread or simple webpage, a picture or a set on Flickr (here’s something that knocked together), a link to a YouTube video (can you do better than this?) or even a Facebook group where 100 friends sign up and support the quest for a 3 Skypephones. The more creative the better.

The only rules are: the content needs to be original, not ripped off an insignificant YouTuber (we’ll know because you have to tag all your videos 3mobilebuzzcomp1), and the URL of the site which brought the competition to entrants attention needs to be included on the entry email. The deadline for submissions is midday on Monday 17th December.

Entries must be sent to the hallowed keeper of prizes, enforcer of rules and judge of all, As always we’ll keep everyone updated as to the best submissions via