Price: $250 MSRP
Pros: Compact; good audio quality; easy to set up and use.
Cons: Pricey; runs warm; limited battery life; won't work at hotspots that require authentication.
Before it was purchased by eBay last year, relatively few people (at least in this country) had heard of Skype, the Luxembourg-based Internet telephony provider. But after about a year of heavy marketing on this side of the Atlantic, more and more people are using Skype to make low- or no-cost voice calls around the country or around the world.
Until now, a major downside to using Skype was that it tethered you to a computer, because the service relied on your system's microphone, speakers and Internet connection. But Skype's increasing popularity has attracted the attention of hardware makers, who are now coming to market with handset phones that let you place and receive Skype calls wherever you have access to a Wi-Fi network.
An example of this is Netgear's new Skype Wi-Fi Phone, Model SPH101. I found this 802.11g device easy to set up and easy to use, and it provided very good audio quality on both sides of a call. It's quite expensive, however Netgear sells it online for $230, while Skype sells it for $280 and it does have a few irksome limitations.
The SPH101 styling won't inspire the technolust caused by certain mobile phones, but it is neither bulky nor unattractive. It measures a scant 4.33 x 1.81 x .83 inches and tips the scales at 4 ounces including the battery. This makes it small and light enough to comfortably fit in almost any article of clothing, except for perhaps the front pocket of your Levi's. The SPH101's battery is user-replaceable, and is rated by Netgear for two hours of talk time or 20 hours on standby. These unspectacular values mean charging the phone every night or perhaps even hauling the charger around with you if you're particularly garrulous. (Skype's own site claims three hours of talk and 50 hours of standby for the same phone, but who are you gonna believe?)
The SPH101 is clad in glossy white plastic with silver trim, and sports a 1.75-inch color LCD display and a clear backlight keypad with a pair of soft keys and a directional joystick. The phone charges via a USB connector on the bottom of the phone, so in lieu of the AC adapter you could charge the SPH101 through a PC's USB port using a standard device cable. There's no Bluetooth, but you do get a 2.5 mm audio jack for an external earpiece (not included), and the SPH101's earpiece volume and speakerphone controls can be found on the left and right sides of the phone, respectively.
Like many other Internet telephony services, Skype has no provision for making emergency 911 calls, and the SPH101 reinforces this fact with both a warning decal over the screen and a legal disclaimer that you must acknowledge the first time you use the phone. Thankfully, the disclaimer doesn't reappear each time you turn it on (please take note, GPS navigation system vendors).
The first thing the SPH101 does when you fire it up is search for open wireless networks. If none is found, it prompts you to select a secure network to join -- the phone supports WEP or WPA Personal (PSK) encryption. Entering alphanumeric information -- like a lengthy encryption key or Skype account credentials -- using a numeric keypad is never fun, but the SPH101 takes much of the frustration out of the job by displaying a menu on screen as you cycle through character choices, so you always know which letter is up next.
Making and Receiving Calls
Once you've connected the SPH101 to a wireless network and logged into Skype, you're ready to start Skyping. The SP101's display offers some basic info like Wi-Fi signal strength and remaining battery life, along with the current time and how much SkypeOut credit you have left.
The SPH101 has a self-contained Skype client, so it's not dependent in any way on Skype software running on a PC. Since Skype contacts are stored on a central server, you can access the same contact list you use on the PC directly from the SPH101. To place a call, enter a Skype ID or PSTN phone number directly (the latter only if you subscribe to SkypeOut) or access your contact list via the right soft key. Unfortunately, there's no speed dial function available.
Call quality on the SPH101 was quite good, and our callers didn't report any difficulty hearing us. One somewhat annoying characteristic of the SPH101 is that you can't turn on the speakerphone or adjust the earpiece volume until after a call is connected, not before you dial or while it's ringing. I also noticed that after about five minutes of use the SPH101 got surprisingly warm to the touch. I'm not talking burning-flesh hot, but for some it may nevertheless be disconcerting.
Since the SPH101 is a Skype-certified device, you can use it to perform account-related functions just as you could with the PC client. For example, a brief press of the power button on top of the phone calls up a menu that lets you change your online status, and you can search for a user via the Skype directory.
When browsing your contact list, an icon indicates whether or not an individual is currently online, and you can add new contacts from the phone. There's also a history list available off the menu that provides information on all incoming, outgoing and missed calls. If you miss a call (either from a Skype user or from a regular phone if you have a SkypeIn phone number on your account) and are a Skype voicemail user, the SPH101 will notify you of and let you access any waiting messages with a chirp and a message on the display.
The SPH101 can remember multiple network profiles, so you can move it between home, office and hotspot without having to configure it for each new WLAN. Sadly, the SPH101 suffers from a limitation that plagues many VoIP phones, a lack of a built-in Web browser, which prevents you from using the phone at any public hotspot that requires user authentication.
The Bottom Line
Given that most people use Skype as a way to save lots of money on phone calls, it seems fairly incongruous to drop over $200 on a Skype handset phone like the SHP101, especially with its limited battery life and less-than-universal hotspot compatibility. Still, if you're a heavy Skype user, it could eventually pay for itself in comparison to your POTS line. Plus, if you want to use the service on the road (or even just away from your desk), the SPH101 can be liberating and could enhance your productivity.