December 02, 2004
Software-based Wi-Fi phones like this free one from Russia continue to proliferate, but prove the technology isn't yet ready for wide-spread use.
How cool is this? If you have a Vonage SmartPhone account or a similar Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-based soft phone service with another IP phone provider, you may now be able to turn not only your laptop but also your voice-capable Pocket PC into a portable Wi-Fi phone.
The product in question is the free Wi-Fi phone software from SJ Labs , a Russian company. The SJ Labs software is supposed to work on both PPC 2002 and 2003.
On the very current Hewlett-Packard iPAQ h6315, a PDA/cell phone running the Pocket PC (PPC) 2003 operating system, it worked reasonably well, though far from perfectly, in simple testing on a home office WLAN.
It didn't work on the Toshiba unit probably in part because the device lacks the horsepower needed and because it doesn't have an appropriate audio system. It does have a speaker and a microphone, but the microphone, which you have to press a button to activate, was only ever intended for recording voice notes.
On the e740, the SJ Labs software would dial calls and successfully make a connection, but then the person at the other end couldn't hear me and/or I couldn't hear them. Typically the device would then crash and require a soft reboot. From this, I'm guessing that more recent and more powerful PPC 2002 devices with more memory would work. Certainly SJ Labs claims they will.
In both cases, the software installation was simple and uneventful using Microsoft ActiveSync. The program's memory footprint is not trivial by the standards of the Toshiba e740 — it's over 3.5MB. The iPAQ h6315, though, comes with 64MB SDRAM and 64MB Flash ROM, so there was no problem with it.
The tricky part is configuring the software to work with your service. You will likely need help from your service provider's technical support people. I did, even though I started with fairly good and comprehensive instructions on how to do it from an enthusiast forum.
You have to set up a profile for each kind of calling you want to do or service you want to use with the software. It comes pre-loaded with profiles for PC-to-PC SIP and PC-to-PC H.323 (IEEE VoIP standard) calling, which are always free. The first step to using it on a service like Vonage SmartPhone that allows you to make calls to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) is to create and name a new profile for it.
Clicking Menu/Options and then selecting the Profiles tab within the SJ Labs software on the Pocket PC brings you to the starting point. You enter a name for the Profile and select the profile type from a drop-down list. 'Calls through SIP Proxy,' the default selection, is the one you want.On the next screen, you're presented with another series of tabs. For the first one, Initialization, you probably won't need to change anything from the default settings. I didn't for purposes of accessing the Vonage SmartPhone service.
The next tab, SIP Proxy, is critical. This is where you enter the address of the service provider's SIP proxy server (an IP address), the UDP (User Datagram Protocol) port number the service provider uses, and the service provider's user domain name. All of this you will likely have to get from the service provider's technical support people if you don't already have it.
The remaining tabs required no changes from the default settings for the Vonage service. When you click OK to complete this set of configuration changes, the program asks you to input your account — your SmartPhone telephone number in the case of Vonage — and password.
After following this procedure to the end, in my case the software didn't work. It repeatedly failed in attempts to register on the Vonage SIP proxy server. I tried everything I could think of, including opening the UDP port on my Netgear wireless router.
I finally gave in and called SJ Labs technical support, but could only leave a message. Next I called Vonage, pulled some journalistic strings and was connected with a very competent and helpful agent in the company's executive response team. He very quickly helped me figure out where I was going wrong.
There were two problems. The instructions I was using gave the address for the wrong Vonage SIP proxy server. There was only one digit difference in the addresses, but it was enough. Then I was also confused about which Vonage password the software wanted. It's very easy to be confused about this since there are three different passwords attached to a Vonage SmartPhone account.
After we changed these settings, the SJ Labs software was able to register with the Vonage SIP server over my office WLAN connection to the Internet and I was able to make calls. I made two kinds of test calls, one to a Vonage PSTN number and then to PSTN numbers in my own home. I also received calls from the Vonage number.
The software works much like other Pocket PC virtual phones, including the cellular phones built in to this iPAQ model. There is an onscreen number pad with command keys that simulate a cell phone keypad. You tap the digits in the number you're dialing on the number pad, or select a number from the address book or call log. Then you press the Send key.
On the calls to Vonage, there was some latency — delay in the voice come through from the other end — but not enough to make conversation really difficult. There was also some break up, which may have been as much because of an overloaded call center VoIP system at the other end. One call dropped without warning. Voice quality was otherwise reasonably good — clear and with good volume.
On the calls to my home phone numbers, family members complained of distracting echoing on their end which, interestingly, I could not hear on mine.
This kind of testing doesn't really answer the most important question, though — could you use this software at a public Wi-Fi hotspot to make and take calls for free? Would the hotspot have to have the appropriate UDP port open for it to work, for example? Would it be open? Would somebody in attendance know how or be willing to open it? I'm guessing the answers are no, yes, no and no.
Unfortunately I live in a hotspot backwater and had to send the HP unit back before I had a chance to take it somewhere else to test it. The nice thing about the SJ Labs software, though, is that it's free. You can try it for yourself.