VoIP options are alive and well on the iPhone platform, with TruPhone,
Fring and Pennytel all offering cheaper call rates through dedicated
Unlike the first two programs that only
work over Wi-Fi, the Australia-based Pennytel service works wherever you’ve got network coverage
. This effectively bypasses one of the iPhone Appstore conditions that VoIP can only work over Wi-Fi by clever use of
access numbers over GSM, not unlike the Skype-To-Go feature offered in
Skype’s subscription packages.
Pennytel Mobile is free to download from the iTunes App Store
(or other mobiles here
), and it’s fairly easy to use once
you’ve got an account up and running. Alas, signing up isn’t a simple
case of filling in details online and using the service five minutes
later. While most services are able to approve your credit card in
seconds, Pennytel charges your credit card a random small amount, and
you have to specify what that amount was before you can add credit to
your account. In our case, it took two days before the charge showed up
in our online bank statement.
That hurdle out of the way,
Pennytel offers a range of plans to suit different users
. If you don’t
want to pay a monthly subscription fee, you can opt for one of the free
access plans, which offer local and national calls for 1.6c a minute
and mobile calls for 10.5c a minute, both with per second billing and
no flagfall. The other plans offer perks like free text messages,
untimed international calls, bundled minutes for calls to mobile phones
and a free PSTN number.
The Pennytel Mobile application uses a
similar interface to the standard iPhone dialer, with a
finger-friendly keypad taking up most of the screen and buttons on the
bottom for accessing the different functions. The most straightforward
feature is the VoIP function, which is only available when you’re
connected to a Wi-Fi network – just type in the number you want to call
and hit the VoIP button. This is the function that most resembles
standard phone functionality, only you don’t get the pop-up dialogue
box for speaker phone and putting the call on mute or hold – the only
option is to hang up. It’s also missing a call timer – the only way to
check call durations is through the Pennytel website.
you’re out of Wi-Fi range, Pennytel Mobile offers two options:
SmartDial and Callback. SmartDial is only available for Australian
users, and works by assigning an access number for contacts in your
address book. Instead of calling phone numbers directly, SmartDial
calls a local number that then patches you through to the person you
want to call over VoIP.
The implementation of SmartDial is still a
little clumsy – you have to select the number you want to call from the
Contacts section (which uses the same database as the main Contacts),
hit the SmartDial button, then re-enter the number manually using the
keypad once the local call is connected – but at least a workaround
exists for when you don’t have Wi-Fi access.
The first leg of the call to the
access number is charged to your carrier at the usual rates, and the
second leg to your selected Contact comes out of your Pennytel credit.
Ideally, it would be the same access number used all the time – letting
you take advantage of certain carrier plans that allow you to nominate
a single number for free or cheaper call rates – but Pennytel uses a
different access number each time you call.
The other workaround
for using Pennytel outside of a wireless network is Callback, which
bypasses your carrier altogether. Callback dials a local access number
but returns a busy signal (so you’re not charged by your carrier for
the call), and this then triggers a call from Pennytel, which patches
you through to your nominated number. In essence, it’s similar to
SmartDial, only both legs of the call – one for the access number
calling you, and the other to the person you’re calling – are conducted
over VoIP and charged to your Pennytel account.
All three of
the call options let you activate caller ID so people can see what
number you’re calling from, and this can be any verified number on your
Pennytel account, including your mobile and Pennytel PSTN number. This
is another feature that’s only offered for Australia users.
subscription call plans all come with a free PSTN number – otherwise,
you can sign up for one for $5 a year. The incoming calls feature
requires the most work. If Pennytel Mobile is the active application,
your iPhone hasn’t gone to sleep, and you’re within a wireless network
(it doesn’t work over GSM or 3G), it works fine, but otherwise, it
doesn’t work well enough to be worth the bother.
If Pennytel Mobile is
active but the screen has switched off, the iPhone vibrates but doesn’t
ring, and once you turn it off standby, there’s no option to accept the
incoming call. When we tried calling our Pennytel PSTN number, we’d get
a recorded message saying that calls to the area were congested or we’d
get a busy signal two out of five times. Even with Pennytel active and
Auto Lock switched off, the incoming call tone is barely audible and
you’re unlikely to notice it ringing unless you’re staring at the
screen when a call comes in.
Two other options within Pennytel
are visual voicemail and SMS. As mentioned in the previous paragraph,
calls to Pennytel PSTN numbers periodically disappear into the ether,
but when voicemail kicks in and someone leaves you a message, you can
browse through your voicemail by caller and view a timestamp and call
duration for each message.
The SMS feature lets you compose
messages to people in your Contacts list, but unlike BiteSMS
doesn’t replace the standard SMS client. If you get a reply to your
text message, for instance, you need to read it in the standard SMS
application and compose your reply in Pennytel Mobile. The upside is
that Pennytel offers extremely cheap rates – 5c for text messages
Pennytel Mobile has got lots of room for
improvement, but call quality is excellent and the call and SMS rates
are very competitive when you compare them to other VoIP services.