The theme for this month’s column is Voice over IP (VoIP), or “making phone calls over the internet”. The line between proper IP telephony and the simple point-to-point calls you can make with instant messaging products such as Windows Live Messenger (MSN as the kids still prefer to call it), Google Talk and ICQ is somewhat blurred, but that’s an argument I’ll sidestep by accepting anything that calls itself VoIP at face value, knowing that some technology pedants will disagree.
There are many VoIP providers out there, but only a handful that I really rate, and one of those is the German company Sipgate. Others worth checking out are Gradwell and Voipfone – the latter in particular has an impressive and fully featured virtual PBX switchboard offering. Sipgate has received bad press in the past because of reliability problems and poor support levels, but my recent experience suggests the company has started to get its act together.
It was while browsing the Sipgate website a few weeks ago that I came across a device so interesting I just had to take a look: it’s a small SIM-free mobile phone that also does VoIP calls via Wi-Fi. “So what,” I hear you say, “there are loads of smartphones that do VoIP” – and you’re right, there are. But the device Sipgate is touting, the DP-L10, is by no means a smartphone, but a very ordinary-looking and simple mobile. It doesn’t have the “gadget jewellery” look of the iPhone clone, nor is it overloaded with frills and furbelows. It does have a simple VGA-res camera, but that’s about the only toy. There’s a novelty factor, too, in that the phone is made by Pirelli, a company I associate with tyres and other rubber products (no, not those!).
A quick look on www.pirellibroadband.com shows that Pirelli is into wireless data in a big way. This makes sense once you know the company is a leading maker of cables (which were insulated with rubber in the old days), and telephony has, therefore, always been part of its heritage. As a large portion of the communications market moves from wired to wireless, it’s logical for the company to go with the flow.
What’s special about the DP-L10, Pirelli branding apart, is that it’s basic, even a bit old-fashioned, which for many buyers will be a huge plus. As a PC Pro reader, you’re probably comfortable with the latest hi-tech user interfaces, but a sizeable slice of the population struggle when faced with GUIs or masses of buttons. Anyone who can use a basic mobile can use the DP-L10 and, once it’s set up, it pretty much looks after itself. You don’t even have to select between VoIP and GSM: if you’re in range of a Wi-Fi network it uses VoIP, if not it calls via the mobile network, and it listens to both for incoming calls.
Setting up Wi-Fi access and the SIP client is a bit fiddly, although Sipgate will do it for you for a fee, but that’s a once-only configuration job – and the worst of technophobes probably knows a ten-year-old who can help. While configuring mine I was pleased to see that it supports both WPA and WPA2 protected wireless networks, and that its SIP client supports a good range of codecs. Voice quality is pretty good, so long as there’s a strong wireless signal, but that’s perhaps the weak spot of this phone – it doesn’t appear to have a particularly sensitive Wi-Fi antenna.
Battery life is good, which was a real surprise, as anyone who’s used VoIP via Wi-Fi on a Windows Mobile device knows it can whack the battery in a few hours; I found the DP-L10 lasted around two days on standby. Just be aware that if you’re on the very edge of a Wi-Fi area, the phone may keep switching between VoIP and GSM, which really hammers the battery to death in a few hours. The battery drain seemed much higher using WPA2 than with simple WEP security, but that’s something I’ve noticed before on other mobile devices.