Wondering what new hardware you will need to make money-saving Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone calls? If you have a broadband Internet connection, as well as speakers and a microphone attached to your PC, you have all the basics (a headset with a mic--starting at less than $7--will give you more privacy). Here's the equipment I've found useful after getting acquainted with VoIP over the last few months.
Qualify your connection: Sending your voice out over the Internet isn't much different from sending e-mail: Software records the message, carves it up into small packets, and delivers the packets to their destination, where they're reassembled. Unlike with e-mail, however, for VoIP your connection must be fast enough to avoid interruptions in the flow of packets. Check your PC's VoIP readiness by measuring your upload and download speeds with VoIPReview.org's VoIP Speed Test online bandwidth analysis (see FIGURE 1
A speedy Internet connection alone isn't always enough to provide clear VoIP calls, especially if a single network connection serves a number of callers. Some routers now come with their own built-in QoS (Quality of Service) capability, which gives priority to the delivery of VoIP packets over such network traffic as e-mail and Web page requests. If you want the advantages of QoS but don't want to replace your current router, D-Link's $75 DI-102 Internet Broadband VoIP Accelerator lets you add QoS to an existing network.
To make VoIP calls without using the computer's speakers and microphone, you need a VoIP phone attached to an ethernet or USB port, or a standard analog phone connected to a VoIP adapter. Regardless of the hardware setup you choose, you'll need to sign up with a VoIP service provider. For more details, see Tom Spring's "Web Phone Woes" in our August issue. Ask your service provider about compatibility before buying any VoIP hardware.
Choose your hardware: Inexpensive PC speakers may do, but a voice-canceling USB microphone is a must. I use Andrea Electronics' $90 Superbeam Microphone and Stereo USB Audio adapter bundle.
As for a suitable headset, both Plantronics and Logitech offer stereo models that are great for listening to music as well as for making phone calls, but my pick is Plantronics' convenient--albeit higher-priced--CS50-USB wireless single-ear headset ($190 online).
For more on using your PC with voice-recognition applications, see my Hardware Tips column from last November, "The Correct Equipment Makes Your PC All Ears."
Think small: IP phones come in all shapes and sizes; but when you're traveling, smaller is almost always better. Few phones of any type are as small as Mplat's $40 Flash Phone F4K, which resides in a 128MB USB flash memory drive and works with any broadband connection. The F4K, which is also available with 256MB and 512MB of memory, supports Bluetooth; to make your calls, you can use either a wireless Bluetooth headset or a wired headset attached to the host computer.
Plantronics' $120 Voyager 510-USB Bluetooth headset complements the F4K very nicely. One of my favorite Voyager features is its ability to switch seamlessly between my cell phone and my VoIP calls.
Is there an easy way to recharge my notebook, cell phone, PDA, and MP3 player when I'm out of the office and can't find a convenient wall socket or cigarette lighter?
Jeff Plumb, Vail, Colorado
American power conversion has a couple of new products that I recommend to anyone who needs to extend the battery life of their notebook or other electronic tools between office charges. The company's $70 Mobile Power Pack offers an easy way to recharge any cell phone, PDA, or other small device that can be powered from a USB connection. No bigger than a deck of playing cards and weighing around 3 ounces, the Mobile Power Pack takes up little space and provides 10 watt-hours of charge. It powered my completely drained Treo 650 for 2 hours. Browse to APC's tech specs for more information. If you need a USB adapter cable for your cell phone or handheld device, APC offers a selection of reasonably priced products.
For notebooks, APC's 60-watt, lithium polymer Universal Notebook Battery weighs just over 1.5 pounds and measures 10 by 6 by 0.5 inches. The battery slides easily into any notebook carrying case, or beneath a laptop while charging. APC says it can add up to 6 hours of runtime to a laptop, and on my Sony VAIO SRX99, it came close--powering the machine for well over 2 hours while completely recharging its 3-hour battery. Priced at $150, it's more expensive than many laptop batteries, but it comes with a selection of adapter tips that allow it to power many different notebooks.