When T-Mobile launched its @Home service last year, it marked the first time a cell phone provider dipped its toe into voice over Internet Protocol services. All you need for the @Home service is a specially configured router from T-Mobile, a home broadband connection, and a regular telephone. The service only costs $10 a month on top of your existing wireless plan and includes unlimited calls (You do need a T-Mobile mobile plan to use this service, though). Still, the @Home service is limited to just phone calls. Since regular phones can only handle voice, you still need your cell phone to get text messages.
Verizon Wireless also entered the voice over IP market this year, but it has taken the concept to a whole other level. Instead of a router, Verizon introduced an entire telephone system called the Verizon Hub. The Hub is a docking station with a cordless handset and a large 7-inch touch-screen display, plus it has almost all the functionality of a cell phone. Not only can you make calls and access your voice mail like a regular phone, you can also send and receive text and multimedia messages (only with Verizon Wireless phones though), watch V Cast videos, use location-based services like Chaperone and traffic reports, get local weather reports, and sync calendar and contact information. Not only does the Hub promise to replace your landline, it promises to be the central communication center of your home.
You still need a home broadband connection, and the device isn't cheap. The Hub costs $199.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate and a two-year service agreement. On top of that, there's a $34.99 monthly charge for unlimited calls and texts. Additional cordless handsets cost $79.99 each, and if you don't have a wireless router, Verizon will sell you one of its own for $69.99. The Hub certainly offers a lot more than a regular landline phone, and we think this would be very valuable for families, but the cost needs to come down a bit to truly make it worthwhile.
The Verizon Wireless Hub is much larger than a regular telephone. In fact, it looks like a mini computer, especially with the 7-inch touch screen display on the front. Measuring 11 inches wide by 6.5 inches tall by 1.6 inches deep, the Hub is black all around, with two strips of piano black plastic on the top and the bottom. The handset cradle is to the left of the touch-screen display. In between the cradle and the display are the volume rocker and the speakerphone key. To the right of the display is the external speaker grille. On the back of the Hub are connections for the power cord, an Ethernet jack, while a 2.5mm audio-out jack and USB connection are on the right side. There's also a space for an optional support stand. We recommend using the support stand so you can use the touch screen easier. At the top of the Hub is a little narrow tray for the included stylus.
To use the Hub, you have to connect the device to your home broadband network, either via a wired Ethernet connection or a wireless one. When you first start the Hub, it'll walk you through a step-by-step guide on how to get started with that. For the wireless connection, you have to select your SSID and enter in a passphrase if you use wireless encryption.
The 7-inch touch screen display on the Hub is quite stunning. It has 262,000-color support, which really shows off the color gradients of the menu interface and the wallpaper images. You can select from 11 different wallpaper backgrounds, or you can upload your own photos via the My Verizon companion Web site. This way you can use the Hub not only as a phone, but also as a digital photo frame. There's also a screensaver, where you can either run your photos as a slide show, or show the time and weather.
Using the Hub is almost like using a touch-screen phone. There's a Home screen, which you can customize with widgets like weather, the date and time, your latest calls and messages, the radio, and more. To go to the main menu, just select the Menu button to the top left, while the phone dialer button is on the bottom left. There's no haptic feedback, but the touch screen is so responsive that you don't really need it.
After selecting any item from the main menu, you'll see a top navigation row that will lead you to the Dial pad, the Calls menu, the Contacts list, Voice Mail, the Messaging application, and a Directories menu. Directories let you look up local businesses and numbers like you would with Yellow pages or White pages. You can also reverse look up the number that you just called.
The phone dialer is fairly easy to use. There's a number keypad to the right, complete with a Clear key and the Call button on the upper right. To the left of the number keypad is a list of recent calls. You can also locate a handset, or communicate to other handsets in the house via Intercom. To the bottom right of the dial pad is a button that lets you search from your contacts list.
If you would rather not use the touch screen for dialing, you can use the cordless handset that comes with the Hub. Measuring 5.5 inches long by 1.9 inch wide by 0.6 inch thick, the handset is just a simple rectangular slab. It has a small 1.8-inch color display, and you can change its background image if you want. You can also adjust contrast, and change the handset's ringtone and volume. From the handset, you can access the Hub's phone book, call voice mail, access the recent calls list, and call the Hub via Intercom. Underneath the display are the two soft keys, a joystick navigation toggle, Call and End keys, plus the number keypad. There are also speakerphone and mute buttons at the bottom. All the keys feel tactile and are easy to press and dial. The handset also has a 2.5mm audio-out jack.
You can't send out text messages on the handset, though. For that, you'll have to use the touch-screen interface. Just hit New Message in the Messaging application, tap "Enter Text here," and you'll be presented with a virtual QWERTY keyboard. It's just like any virtual QWERTY keyboard, plus it has a button that toggles between the letters and the numbers/symbols. You can use your fingers for typing, but we prefer the stylus for more precision. You can also attach an image for a picture message if you want.