Networking

Get the VoIP lowdown from CES

This year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) definitely had a lot to offer for VoIP fans, and Deb Shinder was there to take it all in. Get her take on the latest and greatest VoIP products to enter the market.

While attending this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, I was on the lookout for new VoIP devices. Over the four days, I found several—some of them aimed at the business market and some targeted for consumers. Here's a roundup.

Reach for the Skype

Vendors were displaying a full slate of phones designed to work with Skype's popular VoIP service, and some were pretty innovative. Asus had a particularly sleek cordless model—the AiGuru S2—that takes the convergence concept to heart. Not only is it a Skype phone, but it also allows you to play your favorite music via both Apple iTunes and Windows Media Player. And with support for Windows Vista SideShow, you can check your e-mail from the phone handset.

Perhaps even more interesting to many VoIP users were the Skype-enabled motherboards from Asus that let you use your regular PSTN phones to make Skype calls. D-Link also has an adapter that you can use to connect your regular phones and make both Skype and PSTN calls on the same phone. It supports conference calling, call forwarding, and in-call switching, and you can use the regular phone's features such as caller ID, redial, and speed dial.

Several companies were showing Skype phones that don't require going through a PC—instead, the phone's base station can plug directly into a network's router (either Ethernet or wireless). Some of these are able to double as both Skype and PSTN phones, and you can connect several handsets to the same base station, making it useful not just for homes but for small businesses as well. Examples of these included phones from Panasonic, GE, and Netgear.

Back on the convergence front, Nokia announced plans to add Skype calling to its N800 Internet tablet device. The tablet has an attractive, compact form factor; it's basically an ultra mobile PC running Linux. Weighing only seven ounces, the device comes with 256 MB of memory as well as two flash card slots. Adding VoIP functionality will make this little device even more versatile.

IPEVO showed its more business-oriented Skype phones in a desktop format. Running the Skype software directly on the phone, these devices don't require the use of a computer. With a 2.4-inch color screen, it's an attractive phone that's very functional for business use.

VoIP providers reach out

Vonage kept a high profile at the show. Everywhere I went, I ran into its little kiosks that offered free VoIP calls. But I never got a chance to try it because there were always long lines at those kiosks.

Many people have asked me why Vonage seems to be the best-known consumer-level VoIP service when it costs more and, by many accounts, doesn't have as high-quality service and features as Lingo, Packet8, and SunRocket. If I had to guess, I'd say it's because of marketing tactics such as this.

I did note that American Telecom Services (ATS) had a number of new DECT 6.0 cordless VoIP phones that come bundled with service plans from Lingo and SunRocket.

VoIP without Internet service?

One of the most innovative devices was the ChatterBug. It plugs into your regular analog phone line, and you plug your analog phone into it. When you make a local call, it goes through the PSTN. But if you dial a long-distance number, the device reroutes it through its VoIP servers.

The service costs $10 a month for unlimited long-distance calling, and you don't even have to own a computer or have an Internet connection. The device costs $30. There's also a "business" version that sports you two VoIP lines—one for voice and one for faxes. And unlike other VoIP solutions, ChatterBug works during power outages since it gets its power from the phone line.

Solving consumer VoIP problems

When it comes to cutting the telco cord and going "all VoIP," one major obstacle for home users and small businesses is the need for an analog line for monitored security alarm systems. NextAlarm exhibited VoIPAlarm, a new product that helps solve this problem by using VoIP lines for security and fire alarm system monitoring.

Rates are significantly lower than most landline-based alarm-monitoring services: $11.95 per month for live-operator, full-dispatch monitoring. (I paid Monitronics $32 per month and currently pay Guardian $18.95.)

You can receive notifications of alarms via e-mail or pager, and you can even receive notification when employees arrive in the morning and leave in the evening. You can also set it to notify you if someone doesn't disarm the system at a certain time, and it keeps a log that you can review on its secure Web site.

VoIP gets down to business

Finally, I checked out some of the VoIP offerings aimed specifically at business customers. RCA had an attractive desktop model that works with many popular IP PBX systems, including Asterisk.

I also saw VoIP video phones. The most eye-catching design came from Ojo. It's a SIP-based phone that uses a broadband Internet connection and doesn't have to go through a PC. It sports a large seven-inch eye-level video screen coupled with a cordless phone handset, or you can use the full-duplex speaker phone. You can make video calls or regular VoIP calls, and it provides extra security through Secure RTP and 128-bit AES.

As always, CES mean crowded show floors, and the sheer number of exhibits was overwhelming, so I'm sure I inevitably missed some good stuff. However, this year's CES definitely had a lot to offer for VoIP fans, and I look forward to trying out some of these products in the coming year.

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Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.

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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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