VoIP Alternatives

James A. Martin
PC World
Friday, April 28, 2006; 12:10 AM

The e-mails I receive about Voice over IP are pretty much split. Half of you love the cost savings and cool features that particularly appeal to mobile professionals, such as receiving voice mail messages and faxes as e-mail attachments.

The other half complain about poor voice quality, nonexistent customer service, and early contract termination fees. For instance, one reader told me that during the 30-day trial period, her VoIP service worked beautifully. Later, she was able to make calls, but no longer receive them. The company's customer service was of no help. And worse, she was told she'd have to pay $40 to cancel her service because she was still in her one-year contract.

So, like some of you, I'm waiting for VoIP technology to become a bit more settled before I sign up. In the meantime, there are ways to enjoy some VoIP benefits without switching from a landline phone system.

This week, I'll explore the increasingly popular Skype service. Next week, I'll focus on a few services that deliver the unified messaging--voice, e-mail, and fax in one place--that many mobile professionals love about VoIP.

Skype, a European company acquired by eBay, has been around for several years. With free Skype software on your computer (which you can Skype, a European company acquired by eBay, has been around for several years. With free Skype software on your computer (which you candownload from us), you can call other Skype users anywhere in the world--at no cost. For example, if you're traveling with a notebook (and you can make a broadband connection), you could make and receive calls using Skype, thereby reducing the need to burn up cell-phone minutes.

The basic Skype service consists of PC-to-PC calls conducted over the Internet. Using this service requires both parties to have Skype software installed and active on their computers. Both parties also need a microphone headset connected to the computer, or one of the new dual-mode cordless telephones that I discuss in a moment.

In addition, there's SkypeOut . With this service, you buy a block of long-distance minutes that allows you to call any cell-phone or landline number using your computer. The person you're dialing doesn't have to be at a computer to receive the call.

SkypeOut rates are extremely reasonable. For example, a call from the U.S. to Sydney, Australia, costs about 2 cents per minute.

I used SkypeOut to place calls around the U.S. and to Mexico. For the most part, the quality was as clear as a landline phone. I detected some interference a few times, but it never lasted long.

In the past, Skype users were restricted to sitting at their computers to talk. No longer: New "dual-mode" cordless phones work as traditional landline handsets but also let you send and receive calls using Skype. Like any cordless phone, you need to remain within range of the phone's base.

I used RTX America's Cordless DualPhone ($140) for my Skype tests. The phone base connects to a computer via the USB port. With the Skype software open on my PC, I placed calls on the cordless phone using the SkypeOut service. Overall, the phone's audio quality when making SkypeOut and landline calls was clear, though the further I roamed from the phone's base, the weaker the signal grew (but that's true of most cordless phones).

I have one complaint about the DualPhone, however. When I connected a headset to the phone, the audio level became too soft, even when I had turned the volume all the way up.

Another option is Uconnect 901 , a $60 device that enables you to use any phone with Skype. Also worth noting: You can now use Skype service on wireless Windows Mobile PDAs.PC WorldSenior Editor Denny Arar reviewed the Another option isUconnect 901, a $60 device that enables you to use any phone with Skype. Also worth noting: You can now use Skype service on wireless Windows Mobile PDAs.PC WorldSenior Editor Denny Arar reviewed thePharos Traveler GPS 525 , a Windows Mobile/Global Positioning Service device that comes preloaded with Skype software.

If nothing else, try SkypeOut for a month or two, using a headset attached to your computer. It's a good introduction to VoIP, with minimal hassle and expense since you're not locked into a contract. If the service fits your needs, it's time to think about one of those fancy dual-mode phones.

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, #00026 Tips

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Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it . However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.


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