First Looks: WiFi Phones That Actually Work?

WiFi VoIP phones have been a disappointment: anemic battery life, bare bone features and feeble sound quality. The latest entries in the field, the Linksys WIP300 and WIP330, make big strides forward in all three areas.

With its innate transportability, VoIP technology has long been considered a key future participant in the WiFi world.

On the whole, though, the few WiFi VoIP phones that have been released to date have been a disappointment in three areas: sound quality, features, and battery life.

Linksys WiFi phonesTwo new WiFi VoIP phones from Linksys — the WIP300 and WIP330 (both set for general availability in March) — are definite improvements in all three areas.

The WIP300 (estimated street price of $250) is just about the right size. It's small, light, the same size as a mid-sized candy-bar variety mobile phone. It has a bright 1.8 inch color screen, several different ringtones, a fairly straightforward configuration menu on the handset, a web interface, a phonebook, and, surprisingly, a POP3 email client.

A tad larger and sporting a colorful 2.2 inch 240 X 320 display, the WIP330 (estimated street price of $350) includes the Windows CE operating system, allowing it to function as a pretty capable web browser as well as a phone.

On the WiFi side of things, the devices support the 802.11b and 802.11g protocols, complete with WPA/WPA2 security (both AES and TKIP). WEP mode is also supported for legacy installations. When working with other Linksys equipment, you can use the Security Easy Setup (SES) feature which automatically enables the necessary security parameters.

The devices can be configured using either the handset or a web interface. If you are using a WEP or WPA key, you will need to enter this into the handset prior to making a web connection to the device, an arduous process for the security-conscious network operator who battles unauthorized access to a WiFi router with long, mixed-case passwords.

Once the WiFi connection is made, a user is able to configure the rest of the parameters, such as VoIP service URL, user name and password, using a web interface similar to that of other Linksys devices. The entire configuration can also be completed on the handset, though it is somewhat tedious to do so. Initially, our test WIP300 device was configured entirely from the handset, including the SIP parameters.

One nice thing about the phones is the ability to establish different profiles for different networks. For instance, on one wireless network, you can register with one SIP account. On a different network, you can register with a different SIP account. The SIP profiles are tied to the wireless networks.

One true test of a WiFi phone is the sound quality. As anyone with any experience with other WiFi VoIP phones can attest to, usable audio quality is hard, if not impossible, to achieve. On this front, the Linksys offerings shine. Audio on the WIP300 is almost indiscernible from that of a good IP phone, with a minimal amount of stuttering interference. The phones support both the G.711 (low compression) and G.729 (high compression) codecs, and work well in either mode.

The other true test of a WiFi phone is battery life. While there are no official specs yet, our tests indicate you can expect somewhere between 2 and 3 hours of continuous talk time with a fully charged WIP300. The testing done with the WIP330 suggest approximately 2 hours of continuous talk time. In either case, the phone can be charged with the included power cable. You may also charge the phone with an ordinary mini USB cable plugged into a desktop or laptop computer.

The main difference between the WIP300 and the WIP330 is that the WIP330 actually runs Windows CE. As a result, the phones have different interfaces. Windows CE gives the WIP330 a full web browser, allowing a user to authenticate with a password-protected public hotspot, such as those usually found in hotels and internet cafes. The WIP300 does not provide a web browser, thus it is better suited for private networks where no web-based authentication is needed.

We noticed a problem with the WIP300 in testing when utilizing it behind NAT using STUN behind a Linksys WRT54GS router. The phone was not able to receive calls after a period of time, but had no trouble making calls. Once the registration time was shortened to 30 seconds, which is configurable both in the web interface and the handset, the device was able to make and receive calls without issue.

To hear voice quality for yourself, download this 1 MB voice review of the Linksys WiFi phones, in MP3 format recorded directly from a Linksys WIP300.