Technology

Better Net Phoning with the GE DECT 6.0


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Editor's Rating: star rating

This wireless, versatile handset makes calls with a landline or via Skype—but when is Skype going to get it together?

The home phone is due for a makeover. Devices that are adept at sending and receiving calls but do little else will soon give way to a new breed of phones that more closely resemble cell phones and function like mini-personal computers. New models from cordless phone makers including Uniden, Thomson (TMS) and Panasonic, and newcomers such as Netgear (NTGR), will let users browse the Web, view photos and videos, and make dirt-cheap Internet calls.

I'm kicking off a series on of reviews of these multifunction phones with a look at Thomson's GE DECT 6.0. Europe's Thomson is ramping up a push into high-end home phones in the U.S., and this gadget should give it a big boost. At $149, it hits stores this autumn and strikes me as a very well-thought-out device.

Calling All Calls

Though it looks like your compact, familiar cordless phone, the GE can be used to make regular landline calls or Internet calls using a connection to a PC. And to make sure you're not confused which technology you're using, the phone has separate buttons for each. Other phones require users to pick an option using a convoluted series of on-screen prompts. The GE also lets you set up intercom calls between as many as six handsets throughout the house.

A big bonus is how easy the device interacts with eBay's (EBAY) Skype, which enables low-cost calling over the Internet. The phone's base elegantly attaches to your PC through a USB port, rather than the Ethernet cable used by many other new phones, resulting in less clutter. And to make Skype calls, the phone doesn't require a broadband connection—it even works via dial-up.

As long as the base is connected to the PC, you can use the cordless receiver to make Skype calls throughout the house, without being chained to the computer. And Skype calls are free between Skype users anywhere in the world (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/3/06, "Skype Piles It On"). Other features make working with Skype a breeze: The phone automatically loads your Skype contacts list, including pictures (the phone has a color screen), and will keep you abreast of your contacts' online status.

When making these calls, you won't have to worry about interference with a home wireless network. This phone uses DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Technology), long popular in Europe, instead of the more common 2.4GHz frequency on which domestic cordless phones—and Wi-Fi networks—run. DECT also offers great roaming range within the home.

Nifty Extras

There are other ways the device stands apart from a standard phone. It comes preloaded with games like Snake and lets you change display background colors and wallpaper settings. You can even set different ringtones for different types of calls. There's also a timer and alarm clock.

And because many Skype users prefer using the service with a headset, which reduces echo during Skype conversations, the phone comes with a headset jack. Though that sounds like a no-brainer, a lot of other Internet-calling phones don't offer this basic feature. Oh, and the gadget also has a speakerphone—another nice-to-have feature that somehow doesn't make it into all phones.

Skype Out!

It was the limitations of Skype—not the phone—that I found annoying when using Skype calling with the GE DECT. To access SkypeOut using traditional and wireless phones, you need to go through the Skype Web site, necessitating a trip to the PC. Another inconvenience: When dialing numbers from Skype you have to dial 001, even for local numbers. Finally, your PC and the Skype PC application have to stay on for the phone to make Skype calls. And you can't make Skype calls through a virtual private network (VPN) connection. Bummer!

I also have a few handset-specific complaints. You can't see the phone's screen at an angle. I had to squint, tilt the phone, and bring the screen closer to my eyes to see it better. You may also have to "register" the phone and any additional handsets with the base to ensure they work together. It's a simple procedure, but one that you'll need to master before you can make calls.

These irritations aside, this phone is certainly worth checking out.

Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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