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In Use

The SPH101's user interface is virtually the same as that of the Accton/SMC phone, so I won't repeat the info contained in the SMC phone review here. The main differences lay in the speakerphone operation and some additional annoyances that I ran across. But starting on a more positive note, the problems that the SMC phone has with the Notifications area and keeping proper time seem to be absent in Netgear's phone. I also was able to connect to my test AP using both WEP and WPA-PSK on the first attempt for each.

I also liked that the phone is a bit more comfortable to use without the sharp recess near the ear holes that on the SMC phone cut into my ear. And kudos to Netgear for fixing the ringer volume / call pickup timing. My ear didn't get blasted once when answering calls during my testing!

A key difference between the Netgear and Accton designs is that as you navigate through the SPH101's Options menus, you won't see a Status menu. At first I thought Netgear had committed a major design boo-boo until a check of the manual revealed that this function is called up by momentarily pressing the On/Off button. Once you bring up the menu, all of the normal Status functions are there.

Moving on the the minuses, I'll start with the speakerphone. I hate to seem ungrateful, but while I applaud Netgear for including this function, the implementation has numerous annoyances. First, because you can't set the volume level of the keypad and other notification tones (a problem shared with the Accton phone), you get very loud beeps when turning the speakerphone on and off or pressing any key.

You can also put the phone into speakerphone mode only after a call is up and running. This, plus the usual Skype delay between call connection and when you can actually begin speaking, usually caused a few rounds of turning the mode on and off and "can you hear me nows?".

The biggest speakerphone problem, however, is that the speaker is on the back of the phone and the mic is on the front. So to be able to both hear and be heard, I found myself trying to balance the phone on its side—a futile task due to the phone's rounded side trim. The bottom line is that I ended up not really being able to use the speakerphone.

While checking out the speakerphone, I explored the Options menu that is available while a call is in progress. Along with the expected "Hold the Call" and "Mute microphone" options, I was surprised to find "Switch calls", "View call participants" and "Start chat" options. But before you get too excited, they're all greyed out and unavailable. (The first two options are actually documented in the phone's User Manual, but not the third.)

I found the GUI to be pretty responsive, except when a call is in progress. Sometimes I would be able to scroll quickly through the Call Options menu. But other times there would be a noticeable lag and I could also manage to get multiple items highlighted.

The battery life story is encouraging, but still problematic. I left the phone on but idle most of the time, recharging it overnight for at least 12 hours between uses. In some cases, the phone would shut down after about 8 hours of inactivity. But on a few occasions, the phone still showed over half charge when I went to put it back on charge after about 9 hours.

I also tried a few long calls in which I connected to a test Skype account running on another computer in my lab that had a Skype speakerphone. I placed the SPH101 into speakerphone mode and just left the connection open, picking up the ambient sounds in the lab (mostly typing). The first test was a few 10 minutes calls after the phone had been on for about 8 hours. The battery indicator at the start of the test showed slightly less than a full charge and moved down to about the 3/4 mark after both calls had completed.

After a full night's charge, I ran a few more tests first thing in the morning. I completed three 30 minute calls which moved the battery charge only down to 3/4 once again. But then after another 15 minute call, the battery charge indicator suddenly jumped from 3/4 to nearly empty and the "Your battery is low. Please recharge" screen kept (silently) popping up soon after. (By the way, why is there no tone to announce a low battery?)

These results are definitely better than the 15 minutes max of call time that I managed to eke out with the SMC phone, but the variations in idle time and charge display makes me think there is still plenty of work left to do in the phone's power management routines.

Wireless range and voice quality were essentially the same as I got with the Accton phone, with slight call breakup in my difficult test Locations 4 and 5. See this article for details on the test locations and home layout. Using a Belkin Wireless Pre-N router as my AP, I was able to take the phone pretty much anywhere around my home and remain connected with the AP located in my downstairs office.

One thing I noticed during my walk-around tests was that the battery status icon is blanked and the wireless signal strength bar indicator isn't updated while a call is connected. So forget being able to check to see whether you have enough juice left to keep yakking or see if your wireless signal is better in that quiet spot across the room while a call is in progress. Note that the SMC phone also didn't do a good job of keeping its wireless signal strength indicator updated.

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