It's been almost a year and a half since we heard the first rumblings about this, but we finally got to spend a few days with the UTStarcom F1000, Vonage's long-awaited WiFi phone. Is it everything we were waiting for? Well, not exactly, but as a proof-of-concept we definitely like where they're going with this. Read on for our impressions.
First off, the handset itself has all the cutting edge styling of a late Nineties Nokia and if you're the type
that's embarrassed to pull anything but the latest Sony Ericsson or Motorola out of your pocket (it's ok to fess to
this!), you might feel a little "weird" using the UTStarcom F1000 in public. Otherwise, the phone will remind you of a
vintage cellphone in more ways than one—if the design doesn't do it, perhaps the small, grayscale LCD or old school
interface will do the trick.
[Note: Vonage made it very clear to us before they sent us the handset that the F1000 is in beta, so keep that in mind as you read this.]
Anyway, once you have the phone turned on, you have to connect to a wireless access point before you can start
making any phone calls (obviously). This can be a little difficult to figure out without actually reading the
instructions (as we'll explain in a moment). To make that initial connection you just set the phone to Auto Scan (why
it's not in that mode by default isn't clear), and the F1000 automatically connects to the nearest open access point.
If the access point is encrypted you have to enter your WEP Key, which, is tons of fun to do with a phone keypad, trust
us. If you're at a hotel or Starbucks or someplace that requires you to enter a password or otherwise log-in via a
webpage, you're out of luck; the F1000 just won't work.
Unfortunately, we decided to just give this whole process a shot right out of the box without reading the instructions first (instructions what?). After more than a couple failed attempts to connect we were able to get it going, but what caused us all this grief is a classic case of poor interface design. It's not unreasonable to have to flip through a few menus to connect to an access point, but when you fire up the F1000 you are presented with two options: "Menu" and "Search", and it's that "Search" option that's so confusing. When we first fired up the phone we instantly selected the "Search" option. The phone scanned and found our wireless access point, along with several others, but actually trying to connect this way was problematic. We scrolled down the list of detected access points until we found the one we wanted, clicked "Save", entered our WEP key, clicked "OK", and then...we were bounced right back to the list of access points. So we clicked the one we wanted again. Fortunately this time the WEP Key was already in there, but then hitting "Save" brought us back to that list of access points again. The smart thing would be to have you simply connect, right? Yeah, we thought that, too. Instead, we exit out of the AP selection menu, and are confronted with the main screen, which says that the F1000 is trying to connect...to the wrong AP! Finally we switched off the phone and switched it on again, and this time we were able to connect to the correct AP with no trouble. Beta blues, no doubt.
Frustratingly, we encountered this same problem again when we wanted to switch the phone from one access point (it had connected to our neighbor's open AP) to another. We went through the exact same process, but this time we followed the instructions and already had the phone set to Auto-Scan. We were able to finally get things rolling again, but there's no way the average person is going to want to deal with jumping through these kinds of hoops.
Once you're connected, it's pretty much like using a regular cellphone, which means that voice quality is acceptable (but not amazing). On occasion the sound quality was absolutely horrible, and was so bad that we could barely understand anything that the person we were speaking to was saying (though oddly enough every time this happened the person we were chatting with would say that everything sounded fine on their end). We thought perhaps it was a bandwidth problem on our sude, so we did some side-by-side comparison tests using a regular Vonage line. The calls on the regular Vonage line sounded considerably better, and even people who didn't complain about the quality when using the F1000 could tell the difference between the two.
This was where we were pleasantly surprised. Vonage had hinted back in January that the F1000 would only have about three hours of talk time, but in our tests we were able to get almost six hours of talk time before the battery completely died on us. Part of that may have had to do with the phone's proximity to our wireless access point during the bulk of those hours, but regardless, the F1000 kept on going far longer than we expected.
So what's the verdict? Obviously we're not in love with the F1000, but for a first-generation product (which, even
though there are other WiFi phones, this essentially is) we're actually not displeased. Yes, the voice quality varied
and it wasn't always a snap to get connected, but we were able to successfully make and receive phone calls both here
at Engadget HQ and while we were out and about in Manhattan, which is exactly what we wanted it to do.
It's important to keep in mind is that the F1000 isn't meant to replace your cellphone, and Vonage doesn't even come close to suggesting that anyone would want to carry around one of these instead of their regular cellphone. And while it's true that the average person probably won't see the point in owning a WiFi phone, anyone who travels a considerable amount, especially overseas, is probably going to want some sort of Voice over WiFi capability, whether it comes in the form of standalone handset like the F1000 or integrated into a regular smartphone or PDA phone. The prospect of being able to be make incredibly cheap phone calls from a hotspot anywhere in the world is pretty tantalizing (that's a word we hardly ever use around here), and we really wish we'd been able to schedule a trip out of the country to really test this thing out. We're supposed to send the F1000 back to Vonage next week, but we'll try and see if we can borrow it again next time we're out of town for a followup.
Like we said earlier, technically the F1000 is still in beta, but unless Vonage can improve the voice quality and make the user experience a bit less frustrating, they're going to have trouble getting anyone but the most hardcore business travelers and globetrotters to buy this thing.
Side-by-side with the Treo 650
Vonage isn't taking any chances.