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Live Free or Buy

Angie C. Marek
Special to Express
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; 11:11 AM

The VoIP that connects old-school phones to the Internet may cost money, but talking computer-to-computer is still free - and no longer the impractical novelty of years past. The better services boast sound that can hold its own against cell phones and landlines, and addicts can buy relatively cheap phones and headsets that plug into USB or audio jacks.

Skype (www.skype.com)
The geniuses behind file-sharing app KaZaA expanded their kingdom into VoIP with Skype. Its cousin, Skype Out, allows users to make calls from a computer to any outside line and costs two cents a minute, even for international calls
* Installation: Skype is simple to install and can be downloaded on any computer, even those on which you might not have "administrator" status. (Read: Your tester happily downloaded this bugger on her work computer.) Versions are available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
* Making the Call: Skype's Web interface is similar to any major chat service - make a buddy list and click on a name to call.
* Sound quality: Skype was so lovely it made a convert out of the tester's little brother, who reported a clearer sound than on his constant companion, the cell phone. Using a convenient USB phone (pictured at right and available from Skype for $54.99), your tester quickly forgot she was talking over the computer.
Things got dicier on Skype Out. The connection was weak and laced with static, and cut in and out frequently. Friends called without warning couldn't recognize the tester's voice, and her mother was more blunt: "Honey, I'm miserable trying to understand what you're saying," she said before hanging up on her own flesh and blood.

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Express features editor Holly Morris discussed a special VoIP report.
_____Related Coverage_____
Convergence Emergence (washingtonpost.com, Dec 14, 2004)
Let's Talk About VoIP (washingtonpost.com, Dec 14, 2004)
_____Related Links_____
Express Newspaper

AOL Instant Messenger 5 .9
AIM, friend and foe of teenagers everywhere, now lets us connect in real-time with VoIP technology.
* Installation: No problem downloading AIM 5.9 (it's 4.7 for Mac) or upgrading a past version.
* Making the Call: AOL definitely doesn't go out of its way to promote IM's VoIP features. To make a call, click on the file menu and look for a cryptic menu option offering a "direct connection" with a buddy. The USB phone failed to work; stick with a headset that plugs into your computer's audio jacks.
* Sound quality: "It sounds like you're on a muffled school intercom system," one buddy commented. Others complained of a slight echo. Multitaskers take heed: Firing up Internet Explorer caused the connection to drop for three seconds, and it won't work if other audio software is open. Checking e-mail resulted in a choppy, bad-cell-phone-connection-like sound.

Pulver's Free World Dialup
The darling of the tech industry, Pulver gives you a six-digit phone number and even free voicemail. You can also buy a cordless phone ($200) for use in Wi-Fi hot spots, sans computer.
* Installation: Several programs for Windows, Mac and Linux can access the Free World network. Pulver Communicator is the house brand, available on the Free World site. But freedom is fickle: After three hours of troubleshooting on Pulver's Web site (there's no telephone tech support) this tester had to give up. A testing buddy had it up and running on two PCs in no time, however.
* Making the Call: Type in a six-digit phone number or create a buddy list.
* Sound quality: The auxiliary test team reported a crisp, clear connection with plenty of nuance.

MSN Messenger 6.2
Microsoft's AIM clone jumps into the VoIP racket.
* Installation: MSN requires all users to have a Passport ID, meaning you have to sign up for a Hotmail account. The version for Mac OS X doesn't include VoIP capabilities.
* Making the Call: A prominent button with a phone icon is displayed at the bottom of the buddy list window. Highlight a buddy, click on the button, and start gabbing.
* Sound quality: A little less muffled than AIM, but hardly as clear as Skype. MSN cut out - although less dramatically than AIM - when the tester checked her e-mail during a not-so-interesting conversation.

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