Skype is still the best known voice on IP service, and it may have excited eBay enough for the giant to buy it, but it's in danger of losing out to other VoIP providers. Already half the world's VoIP minutes are provided by branded services from telecoms providers, such as BT Communicator, according to research by Sandvine.
Skype has two big visible issues, as well as some that are less visible. IT managers feel it is insecure and consumers are unwilling to use a microphone and headset plugged into a PC. While Skype is countering the first with plans for an enterprise version, it is doing product deals with specialist hardware to woo consumers. This handset from Netgear is the latest, and possibly the slickest. Earlier examples include the ActionTec Phone Wizard, we looked at last year.
Skype's less visible issues are exposed by the very necessity to make this kind of specialised hardware. As a service that doesn't use SIP, it can't take advantage of the growing number of standards-based devices, including routers and phones. For example, the Fritz router (costing less than this phone) can store up to ten SIP accounts, and turn two phones into VoIP phones effectively with multiple phone lines.
A solid effort
With that background, Netgear would have to come up with something very special to make this a product worth considering. Although it's done a very creditable job indeed, to produce a very good Skype phone, we were not convinced anyone needs this sort of product.
The SPH101 looks good - at least compared to rival branded Wi-Fi pones such as the UTStarcom F1000 from Vonage (not saying much, we know). In mobile terms, this looks like a nearly-up-to-date phone, although bulkier and heavier than any basic phone we'd consider, at 11 x 4.6 x 2.1 cm, and 113g. It has a nice smooth white casing, and a colour screen that measures 1.75in on the diagonal.
The phone gives two hours of talk time and twenty hours on standby, which is distinctly unimpressive, but about par for an early Wi-Fi voice device. If you used this a lot (and you would have to to make any savings at all), yyou would have to keep it plugged in all the time. It charges through a USB connector, either with an AC adapter or from a PC.
Using the phone
So far so basic. How is it to use? Considering the potential for difficulty, Netgear's done a good job of streamlining the set-up. The phone comes with Skype pre-loaded, and scans for access points when it is switched on.
The next step is to pick an AP. The phone works out what encryption is running and prompts for a WEP or WPA encryption key (it doesn't say which because - at the consumer level - it's not that important). After that, it prompts for a Skype user name and password.
This was all easy enough - though if you add it up, that makes two passwords and a user name, all of them potentially alphanumeric and all entered with a numeric keypad, using standard text entry methods.
In my case I had a 16 digit WPA, a nine-letter Skype name and a Skype password of 8 mixed characters. In all, using the star key to shift between alpha, caps and numbers, that took around 64 key-strokes, plus clicking OK and save a few times, Clear when a character went in wrong, and then re-keying the whole password one time as it went wrong first go.
That's acceptable for a one-time set-up, as long as the phone remembers the details, and unfortunately, it does't seem to. When it lost charge completely, it also forgot my Skype login, so I had to re-enter it, though it remembered the WPA key.
Once connected, the screen displays the time, how much SkypeOut credit remains, the battery charge, and the Wi-Fi signal strength.
Calls were easy to make, either to contacts (it can display 200), or using numbers (remembering to add the international code first). The quality was as good as Skype usually is - in other words, not very good. About fifty percent of the ones I made were acceptable. The speakerphone and headphone worked well enough.
Changing any Skype settings is done easily by pressing the power button briefly, which then allows you to change your Skype status (only to pre-sets options - you aren't allowed to create your own status message), edit your Skype profile or change to a different Wi-Fi network.
What's not to like?
Firstly, it's expensive. This is a gadget for people who like gadgets, not a money-saving idea or a great enabler. It costs more than a year of my normal fixed phone contract. SkypeOut is not the cheapest VoIP provider, and SIP-based providers can be used with no hardware cost, on normal phones through a device like the Fritz box.
If you're desperate to use voice over Wi-Fi, there are dual-mode phones like the Nokia E61 which costs more and weighs more, but does a heck of a lot more (it's a cellular/3G phone, has a browser, and can run services like Truphone which are cheaper than Skype and have other advantages).
A browser on a phone might seem optional, but without one, you can't use this at hotspots, because there's no way to register. If Skype has a deal with the hotspot provider, it would be possible for calls to go through without registration: we heard of a deal with BroadReach a couple of years ago, but haven't heard much since, and haven't gone looking. As it is, you could use this phone easily at multiple locations, such as home and office.
And finally, in their drive to offer something they think consumers want ("Now you can do Skype without a PC!") Netgear and Skype have produced something that isn't even a good Skype experience. On a PC, Skype isn't just a VoIP service. Skype contacts can be pulled from Microsoft Outlook, and calls can be initiated from Outlook, using a Skype toolbar. Skype calls can shift into text-mode, and can involve sharing files, and video.
Shoe-horning Skype onto a handset makes all this inaccessible. It won't even do text chats, which could quite easily be carried out on the numeric pad using the usual alphabetical overlay. Ring the Skype phone from a PC, and click the Chat icon; after a pause, you are told that the user on the phone is on a version of Skype that "doesn't support multi-person chats". As if that wasn't bad enough, at the other end of the call the Skype phone actually appears to offer chat as an option during a call in progress. But the option produces no response.
This product attempts to make Skype into a replacement for the home cordless phone. It costs an inordinate amount of money and performs massively worse than either the cordless phone or the Skype service on a PC.
It's a well-made package, but given the cost of this handset and Skype's not-specially competitive position in Internet telephony, we can't imagine this appealing to anyone but a Skype-addicted gadget freak.