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(Pocket-lint) - Nothing in life is free, or is it? With Skype taking the world by storm at the moment, Firebox.com, the UK gadgets site, has teamed up with Skype and a small handset manufacturer to release the Firebox VoIP Cyberphone.

For those not knowledgeable, Skype is the Voice over IP (VoIP) service that allows you to make phone calls via a broadband connection to other users for free. Think of Instant Messaging but with voice rather than the typed word. VoIP will also allow you to call “real” telephones or mobiles at a fraction of the cost of dialling through the normal exchange. Think fraction as 1.2p per minute to a mobile in the US rather than the 13p that BT would charge you to a landline.

Skype is nothing new though, but what is new, and what will change the way we use VoIP services like Skype in 2005 and beyond is the introduction of standard handsets with a USB adapter. Now, rather than having to sit in front of the PC with a call centre headset on looking like a dork, the Firebox VoIP Cyberphone looks like a standard phone with a base and a receiver.

The handset is very basic, and when connected to a switched on PC will control the Skype software (or vice versa). If someone rings you, the phone will ring as well, pick it up and it will initiate the software, just as dialling the number on the phone controls the software on screen.

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This connectivity with the PC means that you will have to be in proximity of a turned on PC, but not officially attached to it via a headset, which in our minds is a big difference and a good one at that.

In tests the software installed easily. We managed to create a Skype account in seconds rather than minutes and similar to free email services the only major problem was choosing a user name that had not already been taken.

Having set up an account, we started phoning friends around the world, and our €10 voucher bought from the Skype website seemed to last forever. France, USA, Australia and we still had credit. Even better is the fact that if you are only dialling other computers with the Skype software the service is free.


So what's the catch? Well currently, it will not work with an Apple Mac. Yes, Skype does, but the Cyberphone does not. As this just down to the lack of drivers rather than Skype itself, we are rather disappointed. Other than that, you will have to start learning all those international dialling codes including the UK (which is 00 44 just in case you'd forgotten) as Skype, in an effort to be globally downloadable, doesn't ever acknowledge which area code you are calling from.

Grumbles aside, the phone is basic but good, the calls are cheap and Skype is certain to change the way we use the phone in the future. For £30 you will soon make back the money that you would have spent on your BT phone bill and if you really must look like a call centre dork then the phone offers a headset socket input.

Writing by Stuart Miles. Originally published on 17 February 2005.