Since the last time I reviewed Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services for HelloDirect.com, a lot has happened. The internet economy all but crashed, many companies went bankrupt, and faith in all-things-web was virtually lost. Nonetheless, because VoIP is such a viable and easily marketed idea, it has survived the shakeout. In fact, all of the net-based calling services that I reviewed before are still around today.
Even if you haven’t tried internet calling, you’ve probably heard it talked about. The services are especially abundant in foreign countries, catering to travelers and families with relatives in the U.S. Overall, most people have been dissatisfied with the service, and rightfully so. Callers experienced breaks in conversations, incoming audio was often nonexistent, and tone quality was garbled.
About a month ago I tested these same services again and was surprised to discover that VoIP has improved. Last year, I was able to get a landline-comparable connection for 1 out of 7 calls; the other 6 had occasional breakups and transmission delays. Last month, I made numerous calls during peak hours and rarely found transmission delays. The breakups are still there but the overall quality seemed to be better.
And now for the downsideâ€¦
These formerly free providers now charge per-minute rates for some of their services. But if price is the most important factor for you, you can still save a lot of money. As you’ll see below, VoIP can easily cut your phone bills by more than a third. And if you take advantage of one less-publicized secret, you can still get free PC-to-phone calls.
Before you begin
In order to talk over your PC, you need a microphone and speakers. You can use your computer’s built-in components, but you probably won’t get very good performance. Ambient noises will get picked up, your conversations will not be private, and your microphone will recycle speaker output, causing echoes.
To circumvent these problems I recommend that you buy a headset. HelloDirect.com offers a number of high-quality PC headsets that connect directly to your computer. Some connect through your headphone/microphone jacks, and some go through your USB port. All of them are super-easy to set up.
If you already have a headset you’re happy with (or if on the other hand, you don’t like headsets), there is another option. The Hello Direct Virtuosoâ„¢ Multimedia Headset System connects either a headset or your regular telephone to your computer, thereby letting you answer telephone calls, control volume levels, and use other applications such as speech recognitionâ€”through the Virtuoso amplifier. Meanwhile, this headset/amp combo also improves the clarity of incoming and outgoing transmissions.
Whether you use the Virtuoso headset/amp system or a PC headset, both will vastly improve the quality of internet calls.
There are 2 different types of VoIP service. One allows you to make calls from your computer to another landline or mobile phone; the other lets you make calls from your computer to another computer.
For purposes of this article, I tested 4 PC-to-phone services: Dialpad, Go2Call, Net2Phone, and iConnectHere. Because these companies use the same transmission technology, the quality of internet calls is, for the most part, identical. The main differences are user-friendliness and price.
Overall I found Dialpad to be the easiest VoIP service to use. You don’t have to download software because all activity is performed through the well-designed applet (see picture). Dialpad also stores your user information on their servers, so you can access your contact list (and dial out) from any computer in the world.
One other factor to consider when choosing a service: some providers offer special deals. Currently, the best deal is from Dialpad. For just $9.99 per month, you can have 400 anytime minutes for calls from and to the U.S.
Now pay attention, here is the “little secret” I mentioned earlier. Dialpad offers “trial calls” for up to 5 minutes in length, but there is no limit to the number of trial calls you can make. So if you just want to say hello to a friend or colleague, or relay some quick information, calls from anywhere in the world to the U.S. are still free.
The main advantage of PC-to-PC calls is the priceâ€”they are 100% free. All you have to do is download some software and be annoyed by the occasional ad. For this category I reviewed 3 services: NetMeeting, Net2Phone, and PhoneFree. (Dialpad, iConnectHere, and Go2Call do not offer PC-to-PC calls.)
PhoneFree is the best option. With their service you can search for other online users by name, you can store contacts in an address book, and you can send voice mail to other users. PhoneFree also has a great feature called ExpertZone. This is a searchable database that can immediately connect you to users with extensive knowledge in subjects such as Health, Finance, Computing, Automobiles, and Parenting.
My overall recommendation for VoIP service is Dialpad. It provides the most versatility, it’s the easiest to use, it doesn’t ask you to download software, it offers free 5-minute calls, and it has a good sign-up plan. But Dialpad is only for PC-to-phone services. If you want free PC-to-PC, PhoneFree has the best features. But if you want both PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone services all in one package, the next best option would be Net2Phone. Because it’s currently bundled with Netscape, you might already have it on your hard drive.