This week – Firebox VoIP Cyberphone K £29.95 www.firebox.com
The FireBox VoIP CyberPhone K (which seems to be its full name) is designed as a front end for the fast-growing Skype network, which routes voice calls down your existing broadband connection at no extra cost. It works just as well for other ‘virtual networks’ like AIM & iChat as well. In essence, the VoIP handset is just a basic USB mîcrophone and speaker. What Firebox is selling you, though, is an idea. There are dozens of other hardware solutions – one of my tests involved talking to someone via their camcorder – but the intuitive elegance of the Firebox solution will take some beating.
Setup on XP is a snap: The bundled CD installs (a slightly outdated version of) Skype and puts all the hooks in place for you to use your handset as soon as it’s plugged in. Making calls is pretty straightforward as long as you can find someone you know that’s also signed up to the system. Skype does incorporate the facility to randomly call people based on their age, interests, and (predictably) sex but that’s just plain creepy and I’m sure that’ll find its way out of future updates. Mac installs require a little more effort, designating the CyberPhone as an input in the sound control panel, and routing the Skype sound out to it as well.
Once it’s done though it sounds at least as good as an average mobile connection. Bear in mind too that a sizeable percentage of ADSL users have learned to live with noisier voice calls anyway. No matter how many webcams and tactile interfaces become available, even the most gadget-crazed of us are slow to adapt when it comes to something as fundamental as the telephone. We still say ‘dial’ a number even though there’s a generation of telephone users that have never seen an old dial ‘phone. This is a solid, chunky object that feels like a proper telephone.
Older web-users with a hankering for a familiar paradigm will love it. Younger web-users trapped between the expense of long-distance call rates and the guilt of not calling their retired parents will love it almost as much. The only criticism I can think of is that until there’s a few more people around to actually call, they ought to sell the handsets in packs of 2. Assuming Firebox can address that little detail I think they have a success on their hands. Bad news for BT shareholders, good news for the rest of us.