Editors' Note: This review has been modified since its original publication to include changes in the pricing of Skype's service offerings and references to additional competing models.
Netgear's SPH200D dual-mode cordless phone with Skype is the third such phone we've reviewed and, truth be told, they're all very similar. Yes, competing models from Philips, Linksys and GE have different styling--this model happens to come in white--but their feature sets are basically the same.
As we said in earlier reviews, 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-IP) service has become the dominant application for making cheap--or free--phone calls throughout the world, manufacturers are coming up with ways to free you from your computer and bring a more traditional landline phone experience to making Skype calls. Like the Philips VOIP8411B, the Linksys CIT400 (the "other" iPhone) and the GE 28310EE1, the Netgear SPH200D 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 Netgear SPH200D comes in three pieces. The largest item--a white 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 pair of Netgear HDX101 powerline Ethernet adapters, 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 wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microwave ovens, or cordless phones.
As far as handsets go, the Netgear SPH200D may not be as slick-looking as the Philips Skype phone (it may be a little boxy for some people's tastes), but it's arguably a step up from the Linksys--so long as you don't mind your electronics in white. Like other dual-mode Skype home phones, this one's shaped more like a candy-bar cell phone, complete with a 128x128-pixel color screen (with 65,000 colors, to be exact), than a cordless phone. Once we had everything plugged in, setting it all up was pretty simple, though the system--at least at first--did seem a little more finicky than the other Skype phones we'd tested. The handset hung during setup, so we had to unplug the hub and pull the batteries out of the handset to get restarted. The second time around we had better luck. 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 info is just like text messaging using a dial pad, so if you're proficient at that it'll seem like a snap.
After logging in to Skype, you can bring up your 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 that it feels very much like you're making a speed-dial call using a standard cordless phone. (It's also worth noting that you 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, but we can't say it performed any better than the Linksys (we thought the Linksys was a hair better than the Philips in terms of sound quality). 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.
Was quality any better compared to using a basic USB headset connected to your computer? Not to our ears. But that's not really the point. The real key is that you can use the Netgear SPH200D just like 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 Netgear SPH200D is geared more toward being a Skype phone, with most of its advanced features (call forwarding and voice mail, for example) designed for customers using Skype's optional services.
As a landline phone, the Netgear SPH200D is pretty basic. You do get support for caller ID (you can store caller ID numbers to 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. (By contrast, the GE 28310EE1 dual-mode Skype phones does allow easy toggling between lines--as well as three-way calls between landline and Skype calls.) However, it's simple to put a caller on hold, mute the line, and then resume the call with a press of a button.
Netgear SPH200D 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 Netgear SPH200D. Every once in awhile, 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 and reset the local time to the correct time. But once everything was set correctly, our international Skype contacts' time zone info was accurate. We should also mention that the phone is firmware-upgradeable, so there's a possibility Netgear will make 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 right out of the box, we couldn't test whether the feature worked or not.
On a positive note, the Netgear SPH200D does allow you to add extra handsets (SHP150D) to the system--four can be connected at one time--and they are readily available. The same is true of competing GE and Philips models, while the Linksys CIT400 is strictly a standalone affair.
The bigger issue is the relative advantages offered by those competing models. The Philips has a slicker design than the Netgear, while the GE has the multi-line and conferencing functionality not available elsewhere. In other words, the Netgear SPH200D performs as advertised, but there are better dual-mode Skype phones available for roughly the same price.