April 18th, 2010

IsatPhone Pro

Posted by Ben in Communications, Gear, Satphones

Inmarsat have announced a new handheld satphone seemingly designed to compete with Thuraya’s handheld offerings, such as the Thuraya XT and other such robust weather and dust resistant devices.

The IsatPhone Pro offers features such as satellite telephony, voicemail, text/email messaging, GPS location data, a claimed up to 8 hours talk time and up to 100 hours standby time, Bluetooth, and worldwide coverage.

Bear in mind that both Inmarsat and Thuraya’s handheld models are geared for voice, not data, capability. Inmarsat says the IsatPhone Pro will not initially offer a real data connection, although it does say it can receive SMS and short emails on the phone itself, and that “a circuit-switched data service at 2.4kbps is expected to be available … by Q1 2011”. The Thuraya XT on the other hand does offer data capability but only at the still-relatively-slow 15/60 kbps upload/download.

So if you’re looking for a robust and weatherproof satphone (both are IP54 rated) to use for voice calls in remote areas, then these models look good. If however, you’re looking for a satphone to use for photo transmission and/or general internet use, then you will probably want to be looking at a BGAN instead, which are capable of up to 492kbps (send and receive).

A full brochure of the IsatPhone Pro is available to download here as is a Q&A document

April 10th, 2009

Skype for Mac – now with SILK codec

Posted by Ben in Communications, Macintosh, VoIP


Back in early February I wrote about Skype releasing a new version of its application for Windows containing the new wideband SILK codec. Codecs are the part of the software that encodes/decodes the audio for transmission, and are absolutely central to the whole thing because the quality of the compression the codec is capable of achieving is key in determining the resulting call quality.
This is particularly important for users in places with limited internet bandwidth e.g. many parts of Africa and other developing countries. The new SILK codec Skype engineered promised to provide much better use of bandwidth and so better call quality overrall, particularly for those in countries with poor internet but also for users with high bandwidth, and from most reports it seems to have done so successfully.


Unfortunately the update that contained the new codec was only for Windows, and Mac users were left out… until now. A couple of days ago Skype fairly quietly released a new beta version for Mac OS X and the changelog posted here made no mention at all of SILK codec support.

However I can now confirm (thanks to the heads-up here) that the new beta does indeed use the new codec. To test this I placed a call from a Mac running OS X and the new beta version to a Windows computer running Skype version 4.0 – and as you can see from the technical call info the call was indeed using the new codec.


A few things to bear in mind regarding use of the new codec:

1. It will only be used if both computers are using a SILK-capable version of Skype. If either one is using an older version that is not SILK-capable then the call will use the older and inferior SVOPC codec.

2. As far as I know, SILK does not get used in any case when placing calls to real telephones i.e. when using Skype Out.

I’ve yet to fully test the new version for improved call quality, but am glad Mac users are no longer left out. There are still some questions lingering though – Does the new Skype for iPhone & iPod touch use SILK? When will SILK be available for standalone devices such as wifi phones? Will existing devices be able to add SILK via a firmware update or will users have to buy completely new hardware?

Bearing in mind that both parties have to have the SILK codec for it to be used, these are important questions for all Skype users….

Skype Beta for Mac OS X page
Skype Beta for Mac OS X direct download [DMG file, 41.4mb]
Skype for Mac OS X user forum
Skype 2.8 Beta for Mac OS X user forum

February 6th, 2009

Skype 4.0

Posted by Ben in Communications, General, VoIP, Windows


If you use Skype for VOIP calls, you should really upgrade to the recently-released version 4.0 (Windows-only so far). There’s a bunch of interface “improvements” (in my opinion that’s debatable) but the most significant difference is under the hood. Previous versions used Skype’s proprietary audio codec SVOPC but the latest version brings a supposedly much improved new codec called SILK.

Why should you care? Well, they say the new codec achieves almost 50% better audio quality for a given bandwidth, which should mean that all users experience better audio quality, but particularly those with slow or otherwise bad internet connections e.g. in Africa. If you’re running Windows (unfortunately it is the only version that has been upgraded to the SILK codec so far, as usual the Mac version lags behind) then it’s well worth the upgrade.

A few caveats though:

1. Even if you are running v4.0 you’re unlikely to experience the audio improvements unless the person you’re calling is also running v4.0, otherwise it’ll still use the older SVOPC codec. I verified this by calling a Mac user and it indeed still used SVOPC.

2. I’m guessing (but not sure) that the new codec won’t be used for Skype-Out calls to “real” phone numbers, only for Skype-to-Skype calls.

For more explanation of the technical aspects of SILK, take a look here and here.

Personally I still much prefer using SIP for VOIP calls to telephones, largely because it’s an open standard giving you a wide choice of different providers and you can do so many things with it that you just can’t with a proprietary system like Skype, also I just find the audio quality much better… but… it’s hard to ignore the already large user-base that Skype has.

Finally, if you hate the new large window that takes up half your screen, you can switch it back to the old look by going to the View menu and changing “Default view” to “Compact view”.

Skype Download

August 23rd, 2008

Photo transmission through the years

Wade Laube, a London-based contract photographer for The Sydney Morning Herald, has written an article on the paper’s website about how the process of filing pictures has developed through the years.
Longtime professionals won’t find much to surprise them there, but it’s a useful introduction for newcomers to the industry.
ZTerm, happy days…

July 2nd, 2008

Multiple Skype Accounts, Part II

Posted by Ben in Communications, VoIP, Windows

Frankly I don’t use Skype much anymore, and now use SIP for most VOIP calls, but I wrote previously about a hack that allows you to run multiple Skype accounts simultaneously. It wasn’t great but it worked.
There is now, at least for Windows, a slightly more elegant solution to running more than one Skype account simultaneously that doesn’t involve creating multiple Windows logins. It’s free and you can download the Skype Launcher software here. It still opens up two Skype windows but the whole process is pretty painless and now supports auto-login too.

October 17th, 2007


Posted by Ben in Communications, Gear, Satphones


Inmarsat has brought out a new handheld satphone aimed to compete with the popular Thuraya models.
The Isatphone is a dual-mode satellite/GSM phone also capable of data use at 2400bps (satellite) and 9600bps (GSM). With these specs I don’t see it comparing that favourably to the Thurayas, especially the newer models such as the SG-2520, but it’s always good to have more competition and choice in this already narrow market.

Isatphone handset details
Isatphone brochure [PDF]
Isatphone coverage map [PDF]

June 14th, 2007

Buffalo Hi-Gain WiFi adapter

Posted by Ben in Communications, Gear

Buffalo Hi-Gain Wifi adapter

Wifi as a means of picture transmission has come a long way since its inception. Whether it’s simple internet connectivity at a WiFi hotspot, to filing from a hotel, all the way to sophisticated wireless editing systems used by wire agencies at major sports events, one of the problems is always getting a good signal at a distance from the transmitter.

Many agencies use external antennas on their laptops at such events in order to improve the signal and reduce interference, usually in a pair to achieve antenna diversity. These systems are indeed effective, but usually require specific hardware with external antenna connectors, and are fairly expensive for the average user.

That’s why I was quite interested to see a new product being brought out by Buffalo – the Wireless-G High Gain USB 2.0 Adapter (model# WLI-U2-SG54HG). Instead of separate wifi cards and external antennas, this product is an all-in-one device that plugs into any USB port, requires no additional power, can attach to the back of the laptop screen with suction cups, and is priced at just under $50.

One thing to remember about all types of high-gain device is that while high-gain can help with receiving data from the access point, the access point still has to receive data from the user, so transmission power is also a key factor, and I can’t find any specs for this device. Time will tell whether this is hype or actually useful (I haven’t used it) but Buffalo does have a decent track record on high-gain wireless devices. Senao is another company that makes decent high performance wireless gear. If you have a real need to compare the technical performance of different WiFi adapters, SeattleWireless is the place to go.

November 13th, 2006

New Thuraya satphone shipping

Posted by Ben in Communications, Gear, Satphones

New Thurayas

According to this press release the new and catchily-named Thuraya SO-2510 satphone (at left) is now shipping. They’ve dubbed it “the world’s smallest and lightest satellite phone ever made”, although Globalstar have just come out with a pretty small one – the equally memorable GSP 7100.

Either way it looks pretty nice and can be found at retailers like GMPCS for around $800-$900. Probably more interesting is the Thuraya SG-2520 (at right) which should also be coming out sometime soon.

June 26th, 2006

New Thuraya satphones

Posted by Ben in Communications, Gear, Satphones

New Thurayas

Thuraya have released more details including pictures of their next-generation handsets, which they say will be available in October 2006. The SG-2520 is clearly the most appealing handset for photographers, given its data abilities.

The SO-2510 handset (left) is designed to be the smallest handset available yet – weighing in at just 150g and measuring 118 x 53 x 18.8 mm. It is satellite-only (no GSM) and is said to support GPRS. This is interesting because it implies Thuraya will begin offering GPRS type functionality over its satellite link – and therefore pricing based on the amount of data transferred, rather than per-minute pricing as now.

The SG-2520 “smartphone” handset (right) is designed with an advanced feature-set in mind. It has a 1.9 inch 262,000-pixel colour screen, Tri-Band GSM functionality for global coverage, GPRS data abilities on both satellite and GSM, 1.3 megapixel camera with 5x digital zoom, built-in advanced SMS, MMS and Email applications, SD memory card slot, GPS navigation capabilities, and Bluetooth, Infrared (IR), and USB data connectivity.

Both models have user-interfaces in 10 languages including Arabic, English, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Urdu and Turkish.

The specifications of the SG-2520 give an idea of what sort of data speeds one may be able to get with the new handset:

GPRS capabilities – Satellite mode:
Downstream: up to 60 Kbps*
Upstream: up to 15 Kbps*

GPRS capabilities – GSM mode:
Downstream: up to 85.6 Kbps*
Upstream: up to 42.8 Kbps*

* Depends on the operator network configuration and radio access technology used.

Looks good to me…

June 18th, 2006

Jetable email

Posted by Ben in Communications, General


Most people would agree that spam is annoying. But when you’re on the road with a slow connection e.g. a satphone, it becomes more than that – it slows you down in getting the email you do actually want, hinders your work, and to top it off you’re paying for the bandwidth to download the spam. One of the primary ways that you’ll receive spam is via web forms that unnecessarily demand your email address and then sell it to spammers. The practice of using disposable email addresses to counter this has been around for some time but usually requires you to check for mail sent to the disposable address on a website.

Enter Jetable – a website and service provided by the French Association for the Promotion of the Non-Commercial Internet. You simply go to the Jetable website, enter your real email address, a time limit for the disposable address, and it generates a random email address to use on the web. Any mail then sent to this address within the time limit specified is then forwarded to your real email address. It’s simple and it works. And for users of Mozilla FireFox, there’s an extension that automates the whole process.

Whilst on the subject, registration on many websites can be bypassed entirely by using the Bugmenot website, or the Bugmenot extension for FireFox users.

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