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THE SIDEBAR: MARC WEBER TOBIAS

THE NETGEAR WIFI PHONE: ET Only Phone at Home

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When I travel overseas I rely on Skype as my VoIP carrier for almost all of my long distance traffic. So when I saw the new Netgear WIFI handset (SPH101) I thought this would be a convenient and useful piece of gear to add to my communications arsenal, thus eliminating the need to use my laptop to make phone calls when sitting in airports, hotel rooms and offices. My optimism would be short lived.

I contacted Netgear and asked that they provide a unit for evaluation. Unfortunately, they said they did not have any product samples that were available to them. I suspect they were all trying to call each other to locate one, but they couldn’t get any of their new WIFI phones to connect! So, being the eternal optimist I picked one up on a recent trip to New York.

First impressions: if you are looking for a WIFI sniffer then this is the gizmo for you, although a bit expensive at just under three hundred dollars a copy! However if you are actually seeking what they are advertising: an 802.11 handset preconfigured for Skype, save your money unless you only want to use this device on a totally open network which in my case would prove just about worthless.

The handset itself is a great size, but in this case, size really doesn’t matter! It even sports a mini-USB plug for power and recharge which I prefer over most other connectors. My CDMA and GSM Blackberry handsets, Motorola Bluetooth headset and Garmin GPS are also mini-USB so one charger does all. This is important when I travel to far away places because I prefer not to carry a million different power supplies.

The fact they chose mini-USB was smart and encouraging but my praise did not last long. If you try to use the Netgear-provided adapter overseas I would definitely stand back when plugging it in to mains power. Plan on using the charger just once because it only allows for 110 volt operation. Sorry, no 220 allowed, which is odd given that Skype can be used from just about anywhere. Maybe they did not want to go through the European certification process.

Netgear did not provide for any computer interface on their USB connection either, which would have made a lot of sense. That means, for example, that you cannot program WIFI access point authentication information into the phone. That ability would be rather important if you subscribe to commercial sites like T-Mobile or Boingo or Waypoint. It doesn’t make any sense to offer a phone that cannot be used in the vast majority of locations, especially for the steep price of this one.

There is absolutely no provision for any log-in whatsoever other than WEP keys. This, in my view, is a primary defect in this device and is the main reason why I definitely would not recommend it for any professional that uses Skype. But as I said earlier it does work great if you just want to search for networks and see what you can’t use! The software will display the type of network, its status, security, signal level and IP address. But allow log-on, forget it. Of course if the phone tries to log onto a network and fails it won’t give you the reason either. I guess the geniuses that wrote the code somehow knew that you would also know what was wrong. Yeah, it’s called engineering!

And speaking of auto log-on, the software is glitchy at best. That means that sometimes it does and sometimes it does not automatically locate and log into a totally open network. Real convenient and reliable, wouldn’t you say?

The Hardware
The phone is slick looking but in my opinion the buttons are, well, cheesy! The audio is actually pretty good once you get a call through. Setting the volume or activating the speakerphone, well, that is a different matter because those buttons on the side of the unit are almost unusable due of their size and placement. And speaking of the speakerphone, it is a misnomer because you really cannot hear the audio very well which I always thought was precisely the point of such an option. Oh yes, and the processor is sluggish, which is quite noticeable when using their tiny track ball mouse. There is a delay when scrolling and selecting menu items and the size of the thing is not conducive to smooth operation.

The Operating Software
The software in my view is elementary at best. For starters, there is no place to store any user data so if the phone is lost, good luck unless the finder figures out who you are from the Skype contacts list, which depending on whether the user logged out before losing the phone, will still be there. Also, when you try to store your user name and password, the software may not remember it and keeps asking you to reenter it every time you try to log on. As I said it is glitchy. And the clock, it forgets the time and date, but then I suppose after trying to use the phone for a few calls, it might not matter anyway! And when setting (or resetting) the time, there is a menu label error. It is a small thing but indicative of the apparent hurried manner that the software was developed.

Skype software
As to how the Skype software works, it replicates their regular operating system but with limited functionality related to calls only. No chat, of course, nor any messages. The best part: the cost of making calls! I subscribed earlier this year to the special offer for unlimited flat rate service for Skypeout. Yep, that works great on my notebook and desktop but when I started making calls on my Netgear phone I noticed that charges were accruing. Why? I have no idea, but somehow Skype knows that this phone is not what you normally use so per minute call charges apply to connect to the PSTN. Kind of defeats the whole purpose don’t you think?

What you can do with the Netgear WIFI phone
Well, (other than the obvious) if you want to have a very expensive cordless phone for use around home or on a completely open wireless network then this little gem will work just fine, although they claim only about two hours of talk time. One of the conveniences of Skype is that multiple computers can be logged in at the same time with the same Skype name; all will ring simultaneously which is very convenient. So this technical marvel will allow you to wander around your house and make and receive Skype calls which I guess is ok unless you wanted to roam somewhere else, like the hundreds of thousands of hotspots around the world that don’t have open networks. And don’t forget the added bonus; that it will actually find WIFI networks even if you can’t use them. This is truly a piece of net-gear!

What you cannot do with this phone
You cannot connect to any access point that requires user authentication. That means any subscription hotspot, virtually every hotel, airport, train station, and any location that offers free WIFI, (like Starbucks, and Borders and hundreds of thousands of other places) are off-limits. Only completely open networks are accessible which in most cases would also exclude the workplace.

And if you might be thinking that I have been a bit too critical of this latest WIFI handset here is the best part. Evidently the Geniuses at Netgear (or whoever designed this phone for them) have never heard of end-to-end signaling; you know that system where you send DTMF tones for command options or to select different menu functions. Like maybe for accessing your voice mail, for example. Well, it turns out that the feedback tones for the soft keys generate the * tone set and pass the audio down the line. So if you try to bring up an option item on the handset it will send the * DTMF tones to the far end which in my case screws up certain voice response systems that I use. Brilliant. Maybe these people should next try their hand at producing locks!

My suggestion: save your money. If you want Skype rates from a wireless portable (like your cellular) then load a piece of free software called voxlib from Skype and run it on your desktop. It works quite well and provides a digital bridge through your computer (when it is logged onto Skype). Call your Skype number from any phone and connect. Quality is excellent and allows you to dial any international number at low Skype rates or for free, depending on whether you are calling a PSTN number or another computer. For receiving calls through Skype if you have a SkypeIn account, just set up call forwarding to your cell. Save yourself the aggravation, frustration and cost of dealing with the Netgear phone, because in this case, talk is cheap; they don’t charge for calls you can’t make!

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