IM (Instant Messaging) has been around for a loooong time now, or so it feels. When it first became available, the culture which it generated was in many ways limited by the supporting infrastructure - most home users had dial-up internet, so you didn't send big files to your buddies and assumed that an audio conversation, while cool, would never be practical.
All this has changed now - broadband is prevalent, and people are realising more and more that you can squeeze a lot more out of your IM client. Real-time audio and video are eminently feasible options, and dedicated applications like Skype have opened up the doors to the prospect of free, internet-based communications with the human touch.
Devices like the i-Rocks IR-2500 blur the line between computing and telephony. Kindly donated to by our friends at Anyware, we plugged and tested away.
The IR-2500 supports PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone communications. Audio in/out are both handled through the USB connection, which is USB2.0-compliant. The keypad is a standard handset keypad, with six extra buttons above which are pre-mapped for use in Skype, and can be customised for use with any other Windows-based application, depending on the selected phone mode.
There are also volume controls (up, down and mute) and one-button voice recording.
The phone plugs into pretty much any computer with a USB port, but does require either Windows 2000 or XP for the software to function properly.
The handset itself is essentially just that - a handset. The real feature set lies in the supporting software, which allows the phone to act as either a simple USB audio/recording device which any application can leverage from, using the Windows Sounds and Audio Devices configuration. The extra buttons above the numeric keypad can be configured within the i-Rocks software to map to any keyboard function - this helps to improve usage within other voice-capable IM clients like MSN Messenger.
Using the mode switch button on the phone lets you move between standard Windows functionality and full Skype functionality. In Skype mode, the extra buttons allow you switch between Skype tabs, browse options and Contacts and use the Call button to either call an online contact or dial a landline. Incoming Skype calls are routed straight to the phone and can be answered and dealt with like normal phone calls.