Skype Phone Bridges Land and Air

Ever since its purchase by eBay, Internet telephony provider Skype has seen its profile and membership roll increase considerably, resulting in a slew of peripherals specifically designed for use with the service. One of the newest such products is Netgear’s $189.99 Cordless Internet Phone with Skype (Model SPH200D), a combo phone that not only lets you use Skype without a computer, but also lets you conduct landline calls from the same device.

 Netgear Cordless Internet Phone with Skype SPH200D
The Netgear Cordless Internet Phone with Skype SPH200D includes a handset and a standing, vertical base.

Installation and Configuration
The SPH200D includes a small, vertical-standing base unit that’s about half the size of Netgear’s broadband routers and has both Ethernet and RJ-11 ports that you connect to a LAN port on your router and to a wall phone jack, respectively. Getting the phone up and running was a breeze. The base unit doesn’t require any network configuration; the device automatically helps itself to a DHCP address and works through a firewall just as the PC Skype client does.

The SPH200D’s handset is roughly the size of a conventional cordless phone, but what’s not so conventional is how the phone communicates with its base. The SPH200D doesn’t rely the typical 2.4 or 5.8 GHz wireless technology common in today’s cordless phones and instead employs DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) a 1.9 GHz technology that’s standard in Europe (and in fact, most of the world) and growing in popularity here.

The handset is powered by a pair of AAA-size NiMH rechargeable batteries (they’re included) rated for an average talk time of about 12 hours or five days on standby. Based on our time with the SPH200D, these ratings seem a bit optimistic — we got roughly half those estimates. It does not support standard alkaline batteries, but the standardized rechargeables (which you can find in a supermarket) will likely be less expensive to replace than a proprietary battery pack. Netgear includes a dock for the handset (separate from the base unit) so you don’t have to fumble with the AC adapter when it’s time to recharge.

You can configure the SPH200D — as well as your Skype account — with a directional pad and two soft keys just below the handset’s 1.5-inch color LCD. The SPH200D menus support many if not most of the functions you get with Skype’s Windows/Mac/Linux client software. For example, you can set your online status availability, access your call history and browse or add contacts. Since your contact list is stored centrally on Skype’s servers, it’s accessible from the SPH200D as well as the PC.

Unfortunately, the D-pad doesn’t function as a pushbutton as is common on many phones, so this requires you to confirm all your menu choices using the left soft key. It’s a relatively minor complaint, however, considering that getting the SPH200D up and running requires little configuration aside from entering your Skype ID and password.

While the free unlimited calling that Skype provides between members is certainly valuable, it doesn’t help you much if the folks you want to talk to aren’t Skype customers. Therefore, the real value of the SPH200D is unlocked when you use the SkypeOut and/or SkypeIn features. The former lets you place Skype calls to PSTN (landline or mobile) phones, while the latter gives you a conventional phone number that you can use to receive calls from any regular phone via your Skype account. These optional services cost about $30 and $38 respectively per year. (You’ll find more details on Skype pricing here).

 Netgear Cordless Internet Phone with Skype SPH200D
The front view of the Netgear Cordless Internet Phone with Skype SPH200D handset.

When you enter a phone number into the SPH200D and press the call button, you’re prompted to specify whether you want the call routed through the landline or via SkypeOut. If you’d prefer to avoid this extra step, you can hit the call button twice after entering a number to automatically use SkypeOut, or else configure the phone to automatically dial all numbers via one method or the other.

That’s certainly helpful, but we nevertheless wish the SPH200D had the ability to determine the call method on a per-contact or per-call basis, since this would allow you to make calls more conveniently via the most cost-effective method. Ideally, you could specify that a contact in the UK (or any international call) always be called inexpensively via SkypeOut, whereas you might prefer to place local or long distance calls via a (usually) more reliable landline. The SPH200D can help you distinguish between incoming calls by assigning different ringtones to Skype, SkypeIn or landline calls.

Because the SPH200D uses the 1.9 GHz DECT technology, it ought not conflict with any other cordless phones you might have about (or wireless networks, for that matter). The ability to peacefully co-exist is a good thing, because while the SPH200D can route inbound Skype calls to voice-mail (assuming you’ve signed up for Skype Voice-mail — it’s included free with SkypeIn service), it can’t do the same for your incoming landline calls because it lacks a built-in answering machine. This means if you want to have voice mail on your landline, you either need to have message service through your phone company or have a separate answering machine on the same line. We didn’t experience any problems using the SPH200D concurrently with a standard 5.8 GHz cordless phone/answerer, and the call quality was always excellent.

If you’re considering the SPH200D, you might wonder how it differs from Netgear’s similar-looking — but at $229.99 MSRP, more expensive) SPH101 Skype Wi-Fi Phone. Aside from slightly smaller dimensions (albeit with a larger 1.8-inch screen) the SPH101 can be used on any Wi-Fi network including hotspots, while the SPH200D, like any cordless phone, can operate only so far from its base. (You can also expand the SPH200D with up to three additional handsets — model SPH150D.)

Using Skype can be a great way to keep telecommunication costs under control for home or office. If you already use Skype frequently or have been eyeing the service, the Netgear SPH200D Cordless Internet Phone with Skype combines the best of both VoIP and PSTN calling into one device that’s easy to set up and equally simple to use.

Price: $189.99 (MSRP)
Pros: Lets you send and receive both Skype and landline calls from a single device; extremely easy setup; co-exists with WLANs and other cordless phones
Cons: Not a Wi-Fi device, so you can’t use it at hotspots or away from the base; no answering machine for landline calls; can’t pre-assign call method to specific phone numbers or contacts

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He’s also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he’s currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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