Editors' Note: This review has been slightly modified since its original publication to include changes in the pricing of the hardware and Skype's service offerings, and references to additional competing models.
Before there was this iPhone, there was, well, the iPhone--the Linksys iPhone, that is. Apple and Cisco--the owner of Linksys--got into a little legal dispute over whether Apple could use the iPhone name, which eventually lead to a settlement that allows Apple to use the iPhone brand while Linksys does, too. The networking giant's iPhone line is a whole family of Internet-friendly phones, and the CIT400--also known as "the Dual-Mode Internet Telephony Kit with Integrated Skype"--is one of the key models worth considering. The retail price is $150, but it can be found online for less.
The vast majority of Skype users still make their Internet phone calls through their computers, employing the built-in mic and speakers on their PCs or, better yet, a headset. But as Skype's VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service has become the dominant application for making cheap--or free--phone calls throughout the world, manufacturers are coming up with ways to untether you from your computer and bring a more traditional landline phone experience to making Skype calls. Like the Philips VOIP8411B, the Netgear SPH 200D, and the GE 28310EE1, the Linksys CIT400 operates independently of your computer, though it does require a broadband connection to work. It also does double duty as a standard cordless phone on a plain old landline.
The CIT400 "kit" comes in three pieces. The largest item, a silver box the size of an average cable or DSL modem, is the hub and must be connected via its included Ethernet cable to a broadband modem, router, or switch/hub (we tested it with a Netgear powerline Ethernet adapter, for example). If you want to tap into your existing phone system, you'll need to have the hub close to a phone jack (there's a standard RJ-11 phone jack alongside the Ethernet port on the back of the hub). The box is powered by your typical oversize AC adapter, which can be a pain to deal with if your power strip is already full.
The other portion of the kit consists of a single handset and its small cradle/recharging station that draws power from a second, smaller AC adapter. The hub communicates wirelessly with the handset using something called Advanced DECT 6.0 (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) technology. It operates in a wireless spectrum (1,900 MHz) that shouldn't interfere with--or receive interference from--other technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth devices, microwave ovens, and cordless phones.
As far as handsets go, the Linksys CIT400 may not be the sleekest of the Skype phones out there (it just looks and feels a tad cheap), but it is compact and is shaped more like a candy-bar cell phone, complete with a 128x128-pixel color screen (65,000 colors to be exact), than a cordless phone. Once we had everything plugged in (selecting where you want to put the hub and handset can be something of a dilemma), setting it all up was fairly simple. The one snag we ran into is that we had to sync the handset with the hub by hitting the Page button on the hub; the button also acts as a handset locator. The ringer on the handset is quite loud--you can choose from a few ringtones--so you won't have any trouble finding the phone if you misplace it.
A wizard on the handset asked whether we had an existing Skype account, and after we said we did, it instructed us to input our account name and password (you can choose to store your password and be automatically logged in, or input it manually each time). Inputting the information is just like text messaging using a dial pad, so if you're proficient at that it'll seem like a snap.
After logging into Skype, you can bring up your existing Contacts list, which also incorporates the familiar Skype icons that let you know whether a contact is online and potentially available for a call. Making a call is as simple as navigating down your contact list and selecting that particular contact; the person is automatically dialed and the call goes through with virtually no delay. What's impressive about the process is it feels very much like you're making a speed-dial call using a standard cordless phone. (It's also worth noting that it can speed-dial any phone number attached to a contact using your landline.)
We won't spend too much time explaining Skype's rates, but when you're calling a fellow Skype member, the call is free--anywhere in the world. To call other phone numbers, you can opt for an a la carte Skype Credit plan (you add money to your account and have it deducted as you make calls) or purchase an unlimited minutes Skype Pro plan for the region you're in. For example, the current rate for unlimited calls within the U.S. and Canada is $36 per year, which is a much better deal than other VoIP services out there. If you don't have a landline number from your phone company or VoIP provider, you can purchase a SkypeIn number that allows people to call you at a specific number from any phone.
We found call quality to be solid for a VoIP phone, and our overall impression was it seemed a hair better than that of the Philips VOIP8411B we tested, particularly in terms of loudness. Like your typical Skype call, you will get some clipping if your broadband connection--or the broadband connection of the person you're speaking to--is hit with any sort of congestion. In other words, unless you've got bandwidth to spare, you might want to ratchet down the World of Warcraft, Xbox Live, iTunes, or BitTorrent downloads while you're making a call.
Was quality any better compared with using a basic USB headset connected to your computer? Not to our ears. But that's not really the point. The real key is you can use the Linksys CIT400 just as you would a normal cordless phone. As you talk, you can walk from room to room and there's a built-in speakerphone on the handset if you want to go hands-free. That said, from a features standpoint, the Linksys CIT400 is geared more toward being a Skype phone, with most of its advanced features (call forwarding and voicemail, for example) designed for customers using Skype's optional services.
As a landline phone, the Linksys CIT400 is pretty basic. You do get support for caller ID (you can store Caller ID numbers in your Skype contacts list) and a flash button for call waiting. But you can't toggle between a Skype call and a standard call--taking one call disconnects the other. However, it's simple to put a caller on hold, mute the line, and then resume the call with a press of a button.
Linksys says you can get up to 12 hours of talk time and up to 120 hours of standby time from a fully charged handset (a pair of AAA 750 mAh NiMH rechargeable batteries are included). We didn't run any rigorous battery tests, but in one stretch we spoke on the phone for well over an hour and it barely put a dent in the battery life indicator. If you do end up leaving the handset off the dock for a few days, the battery will drain and doesn't seem to hold a charge like a cell phone can if you have it completely turned off. Of course, if you place the handset in the recharging cradle between calls, you'll be fine.
Like all cutting-edge technology, you can expect to experience a few quirks with the Linksys CIT400. Every once in a while, the phone will completely freeze up, and you'll have to pull out one of the batteries to restart it. (You have to hit the page button on the base station to link the handset to it again.) Also, when you add contacts to your Skype contact list on your PC, it doesn't immediately update on the phone and you may have to restart the phone for the new contacts to appear.
Another small note: setting the time on the phone is a two-step process. We set the handset's time to the local first, then went ahead and set the Greenwich Mean Time for our time zone (we checked on www.greenwichmeantime.com for the correct figure). For some reason the local time was thrown off after we set the Greenwich Mean Time, and we had to go back in to reset the local time to the correct time. But once everything was set correctly, our international Skype contacts' time zone information was accurate. We should also mention that the phone is firmware upgradeable, so there's a possibility Linksys will makes some tweaks as time passes. We're happy to report that there does appear to be some sort of auto upgrade feature, but since our firmware was deemed current out of the box, we couldn't test whether it worked or not.
Aside from its fairly basic design (some folks might think that's a bad thing), the biggest strike against the CIT400 is that Linksys doesn't sell any extra handsets at this time, so you can't expand the system beyond a single phone. (We've read reports that you can pair a Netgear handset with the Linksys base station, but even if that's true, it's a shame you have to go with a different brand to create a whole-house system.)
That issue aside, we really didn't have any serious complaints about the phone. It offers very similar features to the Netgear and Philips, it performed well, and you should be able to find it for less than those models, which makes it a good choice if you're trying to save a few bucks.