First Look: AIM Phoneline and Skype 2.5
If you haven't tried using a money-saving Internet-based phone service yet, now may be the time. A new service from AOL and a notable software update to the pioneer VoIP service Skype now make it easier than ever to phone home from your PC. I took a look at both software-based phone services. My conclusion? Although I found plenty to like about each, for the time being I'll probably stick with Skype's offering thanks to its higher call quality and lack of ads.
AIM Phoneline: Some Good, Some Bad
AOL pumps up its instant messaging program with a new service called AIM Phoneline, which lets you take calls on your computer from folks dialing in through landline, cellular phones, and other PCs. The service offers free local phone numbers to users of the company's IM service. With your local number (dubbed "AIM Digits"), you can also make calls to landline and cell phone numbers. Receiving incoming calls is free; making them is not. AOL charges $14.95 per month for its unlimited outbound calling plan. (Note: AIM Phoneline is not the same thing as AOL Internet Phone Service, which has been around for over a year now. The older, hardware-based VoIP service--with introductory monthly plans starting at $14--comes with a telephony adapter, which you connect to your broadband modem or router and to your regular phone handset.)
To use AIM Phoneline, you need to install the latest version of its free AIM Triton software, and you'll also need a decent-quality set of PC headphones with a microphone. And you'll need a little time to wait, as it can take days for the service to kick in after you sign up.
First, when I signed up, my local phone number in the San Francisco area wasn't available (AOL reports that it ran out of numbers attached to certain area codes because of overwhelming demand). After a long wait, and for the purposes of this review, AOL provided me with a phone number from Washington State. The second obstacle: Once I had my 206-area code number, it took a few days before I was able to dial out to landline and cell phone numbers. That's because AOL said it needed to set up the E911 emergency service (AOL says it can take up to three days before you can begin making outbound calls).
Once I had AIM Phoneline up and running, the software proved very easy to use. The phone features are built right into the AIM app; click the Talk button beneath your buddy lists to bring up your Talk Center. From there, you dial the phone number on the on-screen dialpad, and your call session begins. Unfortunately, the first thing you'll see is an on-screen ad--rather aggravating. You're visually notified of incoming calls, and they're easy to pick up--you can choose from a number of options: Simply click 'Answer Call' or 'Send to Voicemail', for example.
Most of the time, audio quality was pretty good on the AIM service. Nine out of every ten calls sounded good: My voice along with the voices at the other end were clear and didn't break up. However, when I did experience a poor-quality call, it was really bad. Voices at both ends sounded stuttered, sentences often disintegrated into mumbo-jumbo, and I experienced an annoying buzz. However, when this did happen, I generally could hang up and make the call again, with better results. Another quibble: When I was in the middle of a call, AIM's service would sometimes disconnect itself and the call would drop. This didn't happen all the time, but on average, it happened more frequently than one in nine calls--a huge pain for a phone-aholic like me.
(Note: With any Internet-based phone service, quality problems could be due to a variety of factors: the hardware used, the ISP, or Internet traffic in general, not necessarily the service itself. I tested these services over the course of several days to gauge their performance as well as possible.)
Your AIM Phoneline account also comes with its own online voice mail, and the account is easy to manage. I was also impressed with how AOL handles its Enhanced 911 (E911) emergency service. If you sign up for its outbound calling plan, AIM Phoneline lets you dial 911--a huge benefit for this software-based Internet phone--not available with most other comparable services. Every time you log into AIM, you need to select your address so that 911 dialing will work--it's just one extra click to confirm your location. After that, the AIM Phoneline dialpad appears on screen, and you're ready to punch in your phone number.
The $14.95 flat fee is a great deal if you plan on making a ton of calls from your PC. The monthly fee covers unlimited calls to U.S. and Canadian numbers, along with calls to over 30 countries abroad--such as Australia, China, Brazil, and Italy. There are restrictions, though. For example, the plan's coverage for Mexico only lets you call four regions, including Guadalajara and Mexico City; if you're calling Russia, you're only covered if you dial numbers in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Skype 2.5: Outlook Integration, Plus Minor Updates
Like AIM Phoneline, Skype is a software-based phone service, but its free service is limited to making PC-to-PC phone calls to other Skype users. It works much like an instant messaging app: it displays your list of contacts and lets you connect to them--by voice--with just a few clicks. It requires a PC headset with a microphone, and works best over a broadband Internet connection.
If you're a regular on Skype, you'll notice several enhancements in version 2.5 (we tested a beta version of the app; a final version has since been released)--the most notable being improved integration with Microsoft Outlook. Skype imports Outlook contacts (who already have a Skype ID) and lets you connect to them from within the Skype app, which can be a real time-saver.
Also convenient: If you're dialing a number overseas (and it's not in your contacts list), you can use an alphabetical drop-down list to find the country code. If you don't know the code, then this feature comes in handy. Otherwise, I found that it's just quicker to punch in the full number the old-fashioned way.
Skype didn't roll out any improvements to its call quality with this latest version, but I tried it out and found it sometimes hit-or-miss. Most days, the calls were superclear; some days, the calls had a nasty echo and voices sounded choppy. Overall, though, the quality was better than that of AIM Phoneline. I also appreciated the app's ad-free interface.
To make calls to and receive calls from landlines and cell phones, you need to sign up for the fee-based SkypeIn and SkypeOut services. SkypeIn (which is still in beta) is similar to AIM Phoneline--you get a local phone number that enables you to receive calls from non-PC phones; plus, you get an online voice-mail account. You'll find two huge differences between AIM Phoneline and SkypeIn: For starters, you pay for your SkypeIn number ($12 for three months; $38 for a 12-month subscription). Second, with Skype, you can't dial 911.
Also introduced in version 2.5 are new ways to pay for these fee-based services. A menu option saves you the trouble of going to Skype's Web site to enter your credit card info. This version also adds Skypecasts--a conference service that allows voice chats for up to 100 people and is open to any registered Skype user.
AIM Phoneline or Skype?
AIM Phoneline is big news for AIM users who want to make phone calls using the service, and who don't mind being tethered to their PC to do it. I found the service's call quality to be good most of the time; however, you're likely to run into occasional sound-quality problems.
Skype fans who are part of a big community and who are looking for a forum like Skypecasts will benefit from the upgrade to beta version 2.5. And if you like the idea of expanding your contacts list through Microsoft Outlook, or need help with international codes, you can't go wrong with this upgrade, either.
If you're interested in trying out an Internet phone service, either AIM or Skype is a good place to start. If you're a fan of AOL's instant messenger, then you might want to download the new service and give it a try. If you have friends and family that are already using Skype, then it's certainly worth a try, too. Before you opt for either service's pay-based plans, you should use the free services first, to judge call quality for yourself.
In my tests, I found Skype to be the more-usable service, offering better overall call quality, fewer dropped calls, and no annoying advertising.
A good deal for AIM users who intend to make tons of calls (domestic and international) from their PC.
List: Free for incoming calls; $14.90 per month for outgoing calls
Current prices (if available)