It’s hard to believe there was a time when phones were simply devices that plugged into proprietary sockets in order to make circuit-switched phone conversations. There are still plenty of such handsets around, or course, but if you put up with a bit more complexity, multi-service handsets are now the savvy way to start chatting on the cheap.

Netgear’s smart SPH200D is one such phone. It plugs into a standard BT (or US/European equivalent) socket in order to make calls using the PSTN as would any other DECT-based cordless handset. At the same time, it comes with a base station which has an Ethernet port, allowing it to be plugged into the Internet to access Skype in an automated way. It can also be used with alternative VoIP services, such as Vonage, though this depends on having the required access box and subscription from that company.

Perhaps seeing it as a landline+ type of proposition is looking at it the wrong way around. Nobody would seriously buy this handset to make ‘landline calls’, as they are still sometimes called. The Netgear is an Internet, VoIP phone first that lets the user integrate this manner of communicating with the old-style PSTN for convenience. It integrates two very different worlds into one so that the differences in underlying technology don’t need to be thought about. To the home or small business user, it is just a phone.

The point about using this phone with Skype/SkypeOut is that it frees the user from using a PC (i.e Skype run on a PC with a microphone or USB phone plugged in); the software to set up and manage the Skype connection is built into the phone itself. Once the account user name and password has been plugged into the handset, the phone does the rest on its own, a process that is transparent to the user. The only slight inconvenience is that when dialling, the user must manually choose whether to route the call over a landline connection or Skype, something that can be mildly confusing at first. One can be preferred over the other.

The Netgear also integrates with one of Skype’s cleverest features, the ability to see when other Skype contacts are online and available to receive calls. If any of a user’s trusted contacts have their Skype fired up, the phone displays these on its colour LCD screen, ready to be ‘phoned’ at a single button click. It’ll even note the SkypeOut call credit available to phone contacts where the end-point is a PSTN line.

An unexpected bonus that eventually worked; anyone picking up the phone who happens not to have an existing Skype account set up on a PC can plug in a user name and password, and sign up for the service using the handset itself. Normally, this would be set up online, but that means having a computer on hand.

The phone itself is unusually well made by the standards of consumer DECT handsets, but is pretty much identical in every other way. The major difference is the menus to set up the Skype service, and some additional network settings that might be required on some sites (setting DHCP or a static IP address for instance). Audio quality was good, and even managed to improve calls on Vonage.

About the only thing we’d question is the price – at a street price of just over £100, the Netgear is more expensive that buying the rival Philips dual-mode handset, and you also get a spare handset with the Philips. The Netgear is better made than the average DECT handset, which is worth bearing in mind for the long term.
Skype lists all the handsets that can be used with its service, including Wi-Fi based phones.

In the end, the strength of the Netgear Skype phone - indeed with any dual-mode handset - is that is let’s the user take advantage of Skype without being tied to that service. It also liberates users form the need to have a PC fired up. That said, you still have to be a committed Skype user to buy it.

Netgear also has a Wi-Fi version of this phone - also with Skype - which we reckoned not to be as successful when we reviewed it a few months back. Then again, a static Wi-Fi handset looks like the classic solution searching for a problem.