Personal Tech: Enter the WiFi phone
First came the cordless, then the wireless, and now there's the WiFi phone for making free voice calls across wireless Internet connections. The new handsets connect to the Internet through WiFi hotspots, the same ones used by computers to wirelessly surf the Web while at home and on the road.
One of the first to market for consumers is the ZyXel Prestige 2000W (about $200 online or at Office Depot). It's about the size and look of a boring cordless phone, the kind that connects to an old-fashioned phone line, and is less like a stylish cellphone. Its black-and-white LCD, meanwhile, is small and a bit hard to read.
Calls sounded clear over the ZyXel handset, though I couldn't wander too far away from the borders of the hotspot. For my demo, calls connected through a paid service (BroadVoice at $20 a month for unlimited calls). The phone also connects to some free Internet phone services, such as freeworlddialup.com. But it won't work with other services, such as Skype or Vonage, that use proprietary technology.
At home or in the office, the ZyXel phone liberates callers from the PC, where they are often bound by headset and microphone if they want to make free or low-cost Internet phone calls. But its true potential is in roaming about, making free calls through public hotspots at bookstores and coffee shops. Many of those access points, though, do charge their own fees for access to their WiFi.
And connecting through a home or office network, while not that difficult, still means wrestling with brutish things like WEP and IP addresses. That's not the fault of the ZyXel phone but of the WiFi technology. But then you can't expect to make cheap phone calls without a little work, can you?.
A weekly feature of usnews.com, Personal Tech reviews the latest in consumer electronics and gadgets.