Review: Netgear's Skype Phone Keeps You Connected

Netgear's handset, dubbed Model SPH101, is a sleek little handful in the candy-bar form factor currently favored by cellphone providers for their low-end free phones. It's a basic instrument -- headset jack but no Bluetooth, camera, games, alarm clock, text messaging, or other frippery.

You likely won't miss those features, though. Even though the WiFi phone looks like a cell phone, you'll use it more like a cordless phone: There aren't any wires, but you're tethered to the wireless network -- or networks. The handset will store connection information for multiple WiFi networks and connect you automatically when you come into range. (Unfortunately, there's no built-in browser, so you can't connect to networks that require you to enter authentication or payment data or accept terms of service.)

There is actually no install. The package includes a CD-ROM and the instructions for getting started tell you to update the application software installed on the phone, but it's not necessary, and I'd advise you to skip it.

I confess: I had a . . . philosophical issue with the update process. The software update isn't read off the disk -- it's downloaded across the Internet. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), my firewall did not think it was a very good idea to let a program with a totally generic name like autorun.exe drag anything it wanted to onto my PC. I agreed. No software updates are available yet -- I later determined the version number of the available update was the same as the version installed on my phone -- and when an update is necessary, Netgear needs to provide a separate app with a more descriptive name like skypeupdate.exe to manage it.

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All you need to do to get started is charge the phone and turn it on. When I did that the handset found my WiFi network without a hitch. (It supports the WEP and WPA-PSK security protocols.) I clicked on "Connect" and then all I had to do was type in my router's 26-digit encryption key accurately. I even surprised myself and got that right the first try.

I was prompted to set up a new account by entering a username and password, and after trying a couple of names that were already taken, I found myself ready to make calls to other Skype users or U.S. phone numbers. Skype-to-Skype calls are free, and "SkypeOut" calls to regular telephones are currently not charged.

If you want to make calls to overseas phones, you must set up a SkypeOut account and pre-fund it to cover Skype's fee of about 2 cents a minute. You can do this through a credit card or especially easily through PayPal -- surely no coincidence, since eBay owns both Skype and Paypal. (You can also buy a "SkypeIn" number that assigns you a telephone number which can be used by callers on regular phones.) Good Audio Quality And Range
The audio quality is generally good -- particularly compared to PCs equipped with cheap sound cards and audio gear. On some calls the voice quality seemed crackly, almost to the point of breaking up. Skype-to-Skype calls generally sounded better than Skype-to-phone calls. For Skype-to-phone calls distance didn't seem to be a determiner of sound quality: a call to Sydney, Australia, sounded just as good as a call to my wife at her office.

I suspect the local phone system at the receiving end may be the source of some of the sound problems. Random bursts of static marred a Skype-to-phone call to Greece, and I heard a distracting echo of my voice on a call to Indiana while the person on the regular phone at the other end reported a clear connection.

The range of the handset is at least as good as or better than the laptops on my WiFi net -- I could stand in my neighbor's yard and make calls. However, the voice quality degrades quickly with distance from the router.

However, the small size of the handset creates its own issues. I discovered I had to hold the phone at the right place on my ear to hear clearly. The sound comes out of three small holes at the very top edge of the phone. If I held the phone so it covered my whole ear more comfortably, that little row of holes got muffled. If I held the phone in a slightly less familiar, less comfortable position, I heard better.

Time And Place
The package says the handset has enough battery life for talk time of two hours and stand-by time of 20, which seemed consistent with my limited testing, and perfectly acceptable for a device that probably won't get very far from its charger. Still, if you have WiFi at home and at work, you can drop the WiFi Phone in your pocket and take it with you. Your Skype calls will find you.

There are advantages to having a network-attached VoIP device. Your PC doesn't have to be on (there are other Skype handsets, but most of them attach to a PC), and the Skype app doesn't need to be running for you to receive calls. Because you can carry it around the house or office it is decidedly more mobile than Skype on a PC or laptop.

But there are also some downsides. The WiFi Phone is just for voice calls: You can't initiate a Skype Conference Call or take advantage of the burgeoning number of Skype add-ons like recorders and whiteboards. The handset box and the Skype Web site warn you repeatedly that Skype is not a substitute for a regular phone -- it won't work during power outages that take down your WiFi router, and it can't connect to emergency numbers.

But the biggest disadvantage may simply be the price. The street price of the SPH101 ranges from $200 to $250, a lot to pay for the convenience of using Skype wirelessly -- unless you use Skype so much that convenience is a necessity.

Skype WiFi Phone, Model SPH101









A small, sleek package that cuts Skype loose from the PC, and does it with ease, if at a pretty steep price.