Tips & Tweaks: This Internet Phone Call's for You

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Want to call your uncle in Europe, blab away for hours, and do it for free? Open your browser, grab a microphone, and get ready for my guide to making calls over the Internet.

This week I'll clue you in on what's cooking in Internet telephony, and I'll tell you about the hands-down best way to make free Internet phone calls.

BTW, lest you feel confused about what I mean by "Internet phones," I'm just talking about the kind you make by using your computer and an Internet telephony application. Your bewilderment (or at least that of my copy editor) could be because when you hear "Internet phone," it often means a service that you sign up for with a provider like Vonage, just as you would for a standard POTS, and then use your telephone to place calls that get routed over the Internet. Our crackerjack Internet phone expert, Aoife McEvoy, covers dial tones of that ilk in her "Net Phone Zone" columns.

Have a Chat--or Not

"What? WHAT? Sorry, can't hear you. Turn up your mike, willya? No, no, not that much. Your mouse? Closer to the house? What? Over. Okay, sure, right, I'll be quiet. You have a what? ... oh, yeah, right, your mouth. Of course. The mike's too close to your ... What? WHAT?"

That was me placing my first Internet phone call early in 1997; it's what I sounded like when I attempted to talk with a PC World editor in Denmark. We spent hours trying to connect; remnants of the conversation are probably still floating around the Web.

I was a glutton for punishment: In 2000, I tried again, writing about my Internet calling experience in "Net Phones: Dialing Without Dollars." Actually, an editor tricked me into writing the article, saying things had improved. I fell for it. I'm not as bright as I look, obviously.

I tested ten Internet phone services, and eight companies are still in business--though few look like they did six years ago. It wasn't a pleasant experience. The first few sentences of the article tell the whole story:

<blockquote>"Hey, it's Steve," I shouted into my PC's microphone. "No, <i>cousin</i> Steve." I tried again. "From California." I was trying to talk to Judy in Manhattan. There was silence. And static. Then an abrupt click. We were trying to talk via a free Internet phone call--saving a few bucks but not exactly having a swell time.</blockquote>

Dig This: I love mysterious, creative sites and 99 Rooms is both (and a great way to lose an hour). See the four boxes at the bottom of the screen for instructions (well, kind of). Once you enter the site, watch for how the cursor changes and use it as a guide for what to click (try doors and light switches). And don't worry, there's no beginning or end--just wander around. [Thanks, Brad.]

Getting on the Horn

VoIP (the stodgy acronym for Voice over IP) technology has improved in the past six years--quite substantially, in fact. If you haven't tried a VoIP service recently, or at all, for that matter, I suggest you start with Skype.

Skype (it rhymes with "hype," which it isn't) is a smart, easy-to-use, and free VoIP service. Here are the basics: It's free, and there's no spyware, adware, or even advertising. You and your buddy both need a broadband connection, a copy of the software, and a cheap microphone. (I'm assuming your PC already has speakers.) Skype's voice quality surpasses that of a landline phone--it's CD quality. That's because Skype has an extraordinarily good codec, the software that compresses your voice at your end and uncompresses it at your friend's computer. I've been using Skype for months, mostly calling friends Skype-to-Skype.

If you're wondering how Skype stays in business, it's with extras and add-ons. For instance, I've used SkypeOut to call people on their regular phones for under 3 cents a minute. I had to buy a minimum 3-month SkypeOut subscription; the cost was 10 Euros, which is about $12.91. (BTW, I used a handy currency converter to figure out the amount I owed.) Beware...the SkypeOut subscription expires 180 days after your last call.

And I just started experimenting with a fee-based service called SkypeIn, which provides a local number that friends can use to call me on Skype using their landlines or cell phones. For more details about the SkypeIn service, read "Skype Launches Premium Services." You can also read more about my experience with Skype in my July "Hassle-Free PC" column, "Cheap and Easy Internet Phone Calls."

BTW, there are plenty of sites that support Skype. Here's a sample:

  • The best one is Michael Gough's Skype Tips; if nothing else, Michael's "Why Skype?" is worth the visit.
  • Skype Central has a decent selection of blogs, news, and a Skype forum.
  • Skype Journal provides tips and news--and for you developers, a white paper detailing Skype's plug-in architecture.

Dig This: If you want a tough game, one that will keep you busy while taking a call from your boss, try Ripley's IQ game. It's a little like checkers--drag and drop a ball over another ball and onto a blank square. Do it until you're left with just one ball. Prepare to hit "Start Over" often. [Thanks, Gabe.]

Steve Bass writes the "Hassle-Free PC" column in PC World's print edition and is the author of PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer, available from O'Reilly. Sign up to have Steve Bass's Tips and Tweaks newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.
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