Hands on: Apple Peel 520 transforms iPod touch into cell phone

There are all sorts of software-driven ways to treat your iPod touch like a phone, from Skype to Line 2 and beyond. Unfortunately, none of them actually adds a real cell to your unit. Enter the Apple Peel 520. An enhanced case, it contains a working phone unit that communicates with your iPod through its dock connector. Unlike the data-only Sprint ZTE Peel case, which is due to launch this Sunday, the no-data Apple Peel 520 allows you to place and receive phone calls and SMS texts directly from your device using standard GSM SIM cards.

Since you bring your own SIM, the plan you use can offer as few or as many bells and whistles as you desire. I picked up a $10 H2O Wireless SIM card over at Best Buy and it worked perfectly with the unit. You insert a SIM, press a reset button for a few seconds and you'll soon be able to make and receive calls -- that is, you'll be able to do this once you finish the rather protracted one-time set-up process.

On the iPod touch side, the Apple Peel 520 requires you to jailbreak your unit, add repositories, and install custom software. In addition, you must also set up the Peel hardware, including charging the battery, inserting a SIM card, and preparing the unit for use. There is enough work involved that TUAW cannot recommend this device for anyone other than hard core hobbyists who will not be put off by the effort.

And that's not the end of our concerns. In its current set-up, the software installation steps require you to add a repository to your device that TUAW considers dangerous and unethical. The Netherlands-based hardware distributor promises that he is attempting to find a work-around so customers will not need to use that repository.

The Apple Peel 520 hardware consists of a hardware case in which you insert your iPod touch. The touch attaches to a dock connector within the case and a top panel snaps on above the touch. The case exposes the screen but hides most of the buttons. The buttons are then accessed through alternatives built into the case, which can feel a little unresponsive compared to direct access.

I experienced difficulty getting the hardware set-up as my battery did not initially make proper contact with the unit. After cleaning the connectors and switching cables (at the recommendation of the distributor, as apparently not all iPod cables are created equal), I did manage to charge the unit and get it to accept my SIM card. You insert the SIM, replace the battery, and then press the reset button for seven seconds. A series of chimes lets you know that the unit is ready.

I found the Peel case a little uncomfortable to hold and use. Physically, it's similar to the iPhone 4 but slightly bigger, especially in depth and weight. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of the iPhone 4's form factor, so your personal comfort with the unit should vary.

Phone call quality tended to be muffled and suffered in comparison to an inexpensive Nokia, which we used to test against. (I got my refurbished Nokia as a freebie when I bought a $100 time card from AT&T a few years ago.) During a series of test calls to various recipients, the Peel suffered from intermittent buzzing and hissing. I only had the one unit to test with so I'm not sure if this is a general product flaw or an issue with just this unit.

What's more, the unit experienced constant facedialing issues. Having no proximity sensor, the Yosion dialing software uses a system that constantly "locks" the screen and prompts you to swipe-to-unlock to access phone features. Despite this locking, your cheek continues to make physical contact with the screen and if you leave the dialing pad out by accident, you will trigger tones during your conversation. To fix, you must swipe-to-unlock and then hide the phone pad.

One of the biggest strengths of the 520 is how it allows you to both place and receive phone calls. It rings with incoming calls, and acts the way you expect a cell phone to work. You slide to accept the call and immediately jump into the software to talk. This is particularly well done and probably the most important reason to use an Apple Peel over a software-only solution.

The 520 also supports receiving and sending SMS texts using whatever SIM plan you have in-place. This can provide an especially cost-conscious texting solution for teenagers as an inexpensive unlimited SMS plan can be added to prepaid SIM cards for most GSM carriers.

Costing just US$89 (including global shipping), it's in a different league to the iPhone costs and contracts, but you do sacrifice a certain level of ergonomics. Plus, with the 520 unit you do not get data. The Sprint ZTE Peel, in contrast, includes data and works as a hotspot but commits you to a recurring $30 monthly charge. Plus, it prohibits texting and phone calls.

So who is this product for? The iPod touch's built in touch keyboard makes it a big win for the integrated SMS application. Texters will likely prefer this device over customers who just want to make phone calls. For calls, I found the Apple Peel to be more of an "I love the idea what a great gadget" purchase than a practical way to extend your iPod touch for day-to-day phone call use.

Steve Sande, who was one of the TUAW staffers who helped me test the unit, suggests that people looking to place calls when using an iPod touch buy a cell phone instead. "If you want to integrate the two systems," he said, "just use a rubber band."

The Peel 520 ships world wide from