Hassle-Free PC: Cheap and Easy Internet Phone Calls

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Ring...ring. Hello? It's me--and I'm making a crystal-clear Internet call using Skype's slick software. It's not going to replace your regular phone, but it's great for cheap calls to your buddy overseas.

Hello, Watson

Illustration: Christoph Niemann

The Hassle: I want a simple way to make an occasional phone call over the Internet. I don't want to replace my landline and lose access to 911. Nor do I want to spend time sifting through complex offerings from myriad Internet phone companies.

The Fix: With all the talk about Internet calling services like Vonage and AT&T's CallVantage, you might have overlooked my favorite option, Skype, which has been around for a couple of years. Using Skype is much like using instant messaging. (In fact, IM features are built in.) Click a name in your contact list, and your PC rings your contact's phone. Once that person picks up, start blabbing. It's free to call anybody, anywhere, who has Skype installed. You and your friend will need a broadband connection for Skype to work well. Download it here.

Skype has lots more going for it, too: The program is incredibly easy to set up and use, the sound quality is great, and unlike with Vonage there are no monthly fees. In fact, in the United States, you avoid all taxes and pesky regulatory fees. And for a small charge, you can obtain various landline-like features from Skype. For example, SkypeOut allows you to call any landline or cell phone. You pay only about 2.5 cents a minute for SkypeOut calls. I spent 12 cents using SkypeOut to arrange for a hotel reservation in Buenos Aires. SkypeOut's rates are on a par with those of other VoIP and landline services.

Hassle-Free Skype: Here are a few handy Skype tricks to try.

* Tired of endless bandwidth-wasting calls from strangers? Open the program, click Tools, Options, Privacy, and select only people from my Contact lists can call.

* Link up to five folks in a conference call. (Click Tools, Create a Conference.) To add more, have participants invite people.

* Use a $10 PC Headset Speaker Switch from Plantronics to swap the sound output from your speakers to your headset.

For more tips, see Michael Gough's Skype page.

Hardware Hook-Ups

The Hassle: I'm ready to make calls, but I don't like headsets, and I want the whole rig to act like a normal phone instead of like some high-school science project.

The Fix: Having the right hardware makes Skype even easier to use. Connect any regular or cordless phone to the $45 Actiontec Internet Phone Wizard, and make calls with Skype or any other VoIP service. The Actiontec distinguishes between incoming VoIP and landline calls; it also lets you make outgoing calls using either type of service. If you can't take a call, the device sends Skype messages to your existing answering machine. Get details from Actiontec.

Tool of The Month: Exterminate Stubborn Files

Have you ever tried to delete a file or folder, only to get a Windows error message saying no can do? Maybe you're having a bad hair day, but more likely some program is using the file. Try downloading ForceDel, a utility that works with all Windows versions to force-delete the stubborn file. Still stuck? If you're using Windows 2000 or XP, download and install WhoLockMe. This tool shows which Windows process is locking the file. One click kills the process--a virus, a Trojan horse, spyware, or (as in my case) a dialog box enhancer--after which you can delete the tenacious hanger-on. Download both files here.

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