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3 Skypephone S2While it enjoyed seeing Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung handsets enjoying stupendous success on its network, 3 wanted more. And it got in on the action last year with the launched of the 3 Skypephone.

The Skypephone had one key USP – the ability to make free Skype calls when out and about. It didn’t matter – the low-end features and low price to attract youngsters resulted in mixed reviews, and the launch of Apple’s drop-dead gorgeous iPhone left the Skypephone forlorn and forgotten.

Following an update to the iPhone, 3 remains undaunted, and still seems to think the combination of free Skype calls and budget handset is a winning formula. Enter the S2 Skypephone, a 3G handset available for free on contract.

The latest model is similar in size and shape to the previous incarnation. However, you’ll find a fairly comprehensive makeover from the dull-as-ditchwater styling on the old model, with the conservative black or white plastics replaced by a stylish gloss finish.

Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, but we at Absolute Gadget are fans of the glitzier styling, and the polished aluminium battery cover also adds a premium feel. That said, the highly reflective finish is a magnet for grubby fingerprints, and we spent an unhealthy amount of time polishing the casing.

The buttons have changed for the better – they still occupy the same amount of space on this candybar-style phone, but are arranged as thin strips instead of larger buttons that overlap. As such, it’s easier to hit the one you want without fear of mistakes. Those with the largest of digits may still find it a little fiddly, however.

The 2.2-inch display features a standard resolution of 240 x 320 pixels – up from the 176 x 220 pixels found on the first-gen 2-inch screen. We found it crisp and bright, and it’s ideal for messaging and using the bundled applications.

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The central Skype button from the original phone has been replaced by an equally large ‘OK’ button. Although this means you may have to scroll through a list of programs to launch the Skype application, we found it a lot easier when navigating the menu.

The main menu is similar to those found on most Sony Ericsson phones, consisting of four rows of three applications. It’s also possible to add a row of your favourite applications to the home screen, making it easier to find your most-used features.

Calls using 3’s network were excellent, offering suitably loud and clear sound quality. We were also impressed with the quality of Skype calls – at times conversations could sound a little distant, but most of the time it was very similar to using a regular phone, and the lack of costs are certain to appeal to those on limited budgets as the credit crunch bites. Just remember though, those on pre-pay still have to have some credit on the phone to use the Skype function.

The Skypephone is proof that computers and Skype don’t need to go hand-in-hand. It’s possible for new users to setup a Skype account from the phone itself, and Skype contacts are incorporated into the regular phonebook. As such, ringing them using Skype is no different to making a regular phone call – simply select a recipient and off you go.

At first glance there’s a host of Java-based games to entertain – including Bejeweled and Pacman. Those wanting a multimedia phone will be disappointed to find they’re demos only, and that the full versions have to be paid for. As before, applications include Microsoft’s Live Messenger, along with Google search, Ebay, Facebook and YouTube, hinting at Three’s yoof-orientated target audience.

The S2 Skypephone features a 3.2-megapixel snapper. Although decent enough in bright sunshine, it lacks a flash for night-time shots, and images taken in poor lighting are reproduced with a frustrating amount of digital noise. The shutter lag is also appalling, and on several occasions we found the object of desire in our eye line had long since wandered off.

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With the specification improved in most areas, it’s a surprise to find Bluetooth omitted. [UPDATE: A spokesman for 3 has queried the lack of bluetooth mentioned in our review. “The handset actually does have Bluetooth, and the USB dongle facility can even be used via Bluetooth if you have a compatible laptop,” he said. “I had a good root around in the menus and settings during several hours playing with the phone especially to find bluetooth and I’ll be damned if I saw it anywhere, which was the reason I mentioned it,” replies our reviewer. Better check the manual for this one folks…]

You can transfer photographs or other files with the provided USB cable. There is a microSD reader, allowing an alternate way of moving files, but you won’t be able to access it without turning the phone off first as it’s hidden away under the battery.

3 was keen to point out the Skypephone’s suitability as a modem, and 3G/HSDPA connectivity means you’ll be able to brows the web on your laptop at broadband speeds. Once again, the lack of Bluetooth makes itself known here, and you won’t be able to connect wirelessly.

You’ll find a pair of headphones, a charger and a USB cable in the box. Unfortunately, it loses the 256MB microSD card bundled with its predecessor, so you’ll have to make do with the 50MB of internal memory or splash out on your own card.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about the S2 Skypephone. It’s certainly a lot more glamorous than the dowdy original, and improvements to the screen, usability and quality make it a worthwhile purchase. As with the S1 Skypephone, however, whether you’ll truly appreciate this phone is likely to depend entirely on how big your Skype contacts list is.

VERDICT: 7/10