A year on from the first mobile phone that was dedicated to Skype, 3, the mobile phone operator, has released a follow-up second version titled the S2. But has it improved the situation - should you get excited?
Available as a pay-as-you-go (and contract) offering from the operator, the S2 is a candybar glossy black and silver affair that is inoffensive to look at and will appeal to many looking for a mobile phone that sits firmly in the middle ground.
It is not ram-packed with features like the Nokia 6220, nor is it basic enough to be classed as entry-level like the Sony Ericsson J series.
There is a 2.2-inch QVGA screen (240 x 320 pixels), a keypad that has thin, narrow, keys and the usual array of shortcut keys on the sides for taking pictures and changing the volume.
Above the keypad there is a d-pad, and further shortcut keys allowing you to access the menu beyond the pick up and hang up buttons, and while these aren’t perfectly arranged to be easy to use (they are in a c and reversed c to give it symmetry), they aren't too difficult or cluttered either.
Other features include a microSD card slot so you can expand the memory beyond the phone's meagre 50MB and a 3.2-megapixel camera on the back so you can take pictures or record video.
Being available on the 3 network means the phone is 3G ready, and 3 has taken this one step further and offering HSDPA connectivity for fast internet access.
The speed boost when surfing certainly helps and in our office in Ascot and in central London proved little hassle connecting us to pages quickly. Surfing was fast, the only thing slowing us down being the inability to type quickly on a 12-key keypad.
Probably hoping to get people to use the HSDPA connectivity further, 3 has bundled modem drivers for the device in the box, meaning you can use this phone to connect to the Internet on your laptop, however, you can't do this and benefit from the free Skype calls: it will all be classed as data and charged accordingly.
How the phone looks is one thing, but what about performance? Turning the phone on gives you a simple home screen with a series of icons at the bottom that you can then scroll through. Clearly the way new phone interfaces are going (we've seen similar designs on the new BlackBerry and demoed Android handsets), the system lets you quickly scroll through your applications very much like pressing Alt-Tab on your PC.
In use and it is easy to find the app you want, although it we are being really picky, it's frustrating if the app you want is some way through. Of course to get around this there is a menu button that gives you a more familiar grid and quicker access, but on the whole we like it.
Press the Skype button - after all that's the main reason you've bought the handset - and all that's required is your login. Pulling in your Skype contact list, the software lets you, like the first model, phone anyone in your Skype contacts Skype-to-Skype for free when in the UK. While the phone is on you stay logged in and contacts theoretically are automatically synced between your PC and phone. (We experienced a delay in syncing contacts, however based on previous experience with the Skype software on the original phone we believe this might have been down to new software not fully finalised, as the phone isn't released until the end of August.)
Call quality was good on our tests, not perfect, but good enough and certainly in line with Skype call quality on the PC or Mac. It's one of those catch 22 moments: if I was paying for the call I would be at times disappointed, but I am not so I was happy to put up with the odd blip. After all, I've just phoned a mate in the US and Australia for nowt whilst in the pub.
Other applications of note include Facebook - hey you've got to have a bit of social networking sometimes - installed as standard and 3's Quick link page that will get you to all the major UK websites that you'd want like the BBC quickly. It's great for getting you started on the mainstream web.
As a concept we love it. However, the S2 suffers the same problems as the S1, in that you've got to really want to Skype people to make this a worthwhile investment.
Credit where credit is due, 3 has listened to criticism that the first phone got and improved it. This version adds a better camera, better web surfing capabilities, the browser is vastly improved, and is overall a better phone all round.
The catch? Pay-as-you-go customers will have to top up the phone every 90 days (it was every 30) to benefit from the free Skype calling, and outside of the UK on roaming those free Skype calls disappear, it becomes part of your data package and therefore phone to gets very expensive, very quickly.
If you are looking for a phone that is just a phone, but want a bit of free calling on the side, this is as good an offering as you'll get from mid-range Nokia or Sony Ericsson handset.
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