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Wi-Fi Phones Are a Cool Way to Go

Times Staff Writer

It looks like a cellphone. It allows you to make calls like a cellphone.

But it’s not a cellphone. It doesn’t even work on the cellular network. And to cap off the differences, the calls you make on it are free, or very low cost, anywhere in the world.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 04, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Internet telephones: The Technopolis column in Thursday’s Business section said Sony Corp.'s Mylo telephone allowed users to play downloaded videos and music stored on a purchased memory card. In addition, videos and music can be stored on Mylo’s built-in memory, which comes at no extra charge.

It’s the latest wrinkle in Internet telephone communications: a hand-held device that can make calls using the online Skype service, which usually involves a computer at proximity.

This device, however, works -- with no computer -- in any spot that has wireless Internet (better known as Wi-Fi) access.

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Walk into one of these locales, and the Skype Wi-Fi phones can hook on to the Internet to make calls to any other Skype user (those are the free calls) or to any regular telephone.

If you take one step out of a Wi-Fi hot spot, however, these phones are as useful for making calls as a brick.

These phones, cool though they are, could be a lot more alluring if they also could be used to make cellular calls. A combo cell-Wi-Fi device would offer the optimum in portability and cost savings. Indeed, a Skype spokesperson said just such a phone was a goal for the company.

For now, these devices are of most use to people who regularly make Skype calls -- which are at their best, savings-wise, when calling foreign lands -- and find themselves often in Wi-Fi hot spots. Maybe an international rights lawyer addicted to Frappuccinos.

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In any regard, these gadgets, priced at about $180 to $350, are not only cool, but they also offer an intriguing glimpse into a possible future for wireless phones.

At the high end is Sony Corp.'s Mylo, which in addition to phone calls can be used for online instant messaging.

The Mylo, which will cost about $350 when introduced next month, also can do limited Web surfing, which allows it to be used to make the credit card payments needed to get online in pay Wi-Fi zones.

The device can also play downloaded music and video that has been stored on its memory card, which costs extra.

The lower-priced models, at about $180 to $250, are only for calls. And they can’t be used in pay Wi-Fi areas. These models are from Belkin Corp., Netgear Inc., SMC Networks Inc. and Edge-Core. Each has slightly different features, but because they have to adhere to a design dictated by Skype, they’re similar in appearance and basic functions.

I tested two of them: the Mylo, which resembles a set of Disney-like mouse ears with a screen in the middle, and the Belkin, which looks like a conventional candy-bar-style cellphone.

Upon entering a Wi-Fi area, both picked up the signals and let me know that I could get online.

Whenever a security password was required for hookup, I was able to easily type it in on the Mylo, which has a full keyboard that slides down from beneath its screen. It can be typed into the Belkin model too, but you have to use the alphabet mode of the telephone keys.

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Once a successful connection was made, I signed on with my Skype user name and password (you get them when you subscribe to the service, free, at www.skype.com).

After a few seconds, my personal buddy list of regular contacts popped up on the screen, just as if I was using Skype on a computer.

My first call was to Times reporter Marla Dickerson, who is based in Mexico City and regularly uses Skype to call friends and family in the States.

“It’s the expat’s best friend,” she said, using a headset plugged into her office computer. At that point I was in the Los Angeles office, walking down a hallway and unconnected to any computers.

“No way,” Marla said, instantly jealous. “The problem with Skype is that I have to be at the computer if I know someone, like Mom, is going to call. It has to be planned.”

The quality of the connection was good but not stellar. Marla’s voice sounded slightly muffled on the Mylo.

On the Belkin, the voice quality was a bit less good. Marla called me back on both units, and they rang as if I was getting a regular call.

Because our Skype calls didn’t involve land lines, they were free. I also called Times reporter Don Lee in Shanghai. The voice quality on the Mylo was excellent -- better, even, than with a land line. Again, the voice quality on the Belkin was passable but not as good.

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Next, I went to a local hotel that has Wi-Fi service available for a fee and tried making a call on the Mylo.

First I had to use the slow Web browser on the device to fill in credit card payment information -- not an easy task on a screen that is about 2 inches wide. It took me about 10 minutes to pay and sign on.

All in all, the Mylo and Belkin phones were a kick to use. And I knew that if I had one, I would make lots more calls to friends overseas.

Another benefit for those annoyed by wacky custom ring tones: Neither the Mylo nor the Belkin has the capability to use them. Now that’s what I call progress.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Internet calls, unplugged

Sony Mylo

Price: $350

Pros: With its full keyboard, it

also can be used for online instant messaging of text in Wi-Fi areas. And the device can play downloaded music and videos.

Cons: Expensive

*

Belkin Wi-Fi Phone

Price: $179.99

Pros: Least expensive of the new devices

Cons: Cannot be used in Wi-Fi areas that require payments for online access.

*

David Colker can be reached at technopolis@latimes.com.


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