Take Skype in Hand

In all its various forms, voice-over-IP (VoIP) offers an efficient way to reduce telephone costs. Skype is a particularly popular VoIP service that’s primarily used to make PC-to-PC calls for free, although a subset of Skype customers pay for credits that let them make PC-to-POTS (plain old telephone service) calls, or vice versa, reaching anyone with a landline or mobile phone.

But no matter whom you call, if you use Skype software on your PC you need to have speakers and a microphone so you can converse. Most people use the type of headset that secretaries (or Madonna) wear or other myriad computer microphones.

Now, USRobotics‘ USR9600 puts a simple but effective twist on this category &#151 why not fashion the speaker and microphone into the form of a regular telephone handset?

The $49.99 USR9600 USB Internet Phone is essentially a USB audio device. Unlike plain vanilla headsets, though, the USR9600 is “phone-like” with a numeric keypad, basic navigation keys, an LCD information screen and a ringer. USRobotics also notes that the phone features noise reduction and echo cancellation to improve voice quality. While the USR9600’s basic audio features can work with any VoIP application (or any PC audio application, for that matter), USRobotics includes software that integrates the phone with the Skype software for a more seamless experience.

Out of the Box
The USR9600 is a lightweight handset, slightly larger than a typical cell phone, but smaller than most landline telephones. It is a corded device, so although USRobotics describes it as “portable,” they really mean you can unplug it from one PC and plug it into another (by that logic, our 20-inch monitor is portable, too). The cord is only about three feet long, about a third of which is coiled in that traditional telephone cord way. We found this short tether rather inconvenient, particularly given how accustomed we’ve become to the freedom of cordless and cellular phones.

The phone includes CD software for Windows 2000/XP, and you can download a Mac version from the USRbotics Web site. The software runs alongside the Skype software (available as a free download from the Web) and acts as a bridge between the phone and the Skype service.

With the software installed, you simply plug the handset’s USB cable into any USB1.1 or 2.0 port, and the phone comes alive with a beep. A small green light shines and the LCD display shows the current time and date.

The USR9600 features a typical keypad layout, with reasonably solid buttons. There is a green button to talk/dial, which opens your Skype address book if not already on screen. Likewise, the red button ends calls or minimizes the Skype interface if open.

The phone’s LCD has no back light. Because the handset needs no battery or external power supply, perhaps the USB port cannot provide sufficient power for a light, which is too bad. In idle mode, the LCD displays the date, time, day and year. For some strange reason, the year is the most prominent information on the display.

The phone includes 10 built-in ring styles that you can select either through the handset or with the USRobotics software. The styles all sound similar &#151 electronic and harsh. In this day and age of MP3 ring tones &#151 the handset is connected to your computer, after all &#151 you’d think they’d offer more customization.

USRobotics USR9600 USB Internet Phone

Skype Integration
You can make a call to someone in your Skype address book without taking your hands off the USR9600. Simply click the green “talk” button and the Skype window appears. Use the phone’s navigation buttons to move up and down, and click the talk button again on the contact you wish to call. Unfortunately, the contact names do not appear on the handset’s LCD, so you have to look at the PC screen to see whom you are calling.

The Skype address book lets you assign a speed dial number to a contact. In that case, you can simply press the speed dial number on the handset and click the talk button to immediately dial that contact. When receiving an incoming Skype call, the handset display does show caller ID information. If your caller is a Skype user, the display shows their “official” Skype username &#151 not any nickname you’ve created in your address book.

While you’re talking, the phone display shows a call timer. Although PC-to-PC Skype calls are free, the timer can be useful when using paid Skype credits to talk to landline or mobile phones.

Sound Quality
In our tests, callers to our USR9600 sounded significantly clearer than callers to our Cingular service. On the handset, caller’s voices are distinct and clear, without echo or digital artifacts. Overall, the sound quality was excellent.

Likewise, the USR9600 microphone is sensitive and clear, as people we called reported clear voice quality without distortion. Unfortunately the USR9600 does not feature a speaker phone, another feature one becomes accustomed to on many conventional phones.

Bottom Line
The USR9600 excels at its core purpose &#151 traditional handset ergonomics with great sound quality. But it lacks some of the luxuries you expect in a $50 phone &#151 from its short cord, unlit display and shrill ring tones. The Skype integration is neat and useful, but it could be improved even more with better address book awareness.

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is: bordella.com

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