The Shopping Club

Free Calls … From a $2,000 Phone

Good morning Bruce,

After yesterday’s dismal results with PC-to-PC calling, I was pretty down about the future of Internet telephony. However, after sampling the delights of a few PC-to-phone freebies, my irrational exuberance is back. These services are just as free as PhoneFree, Beecall, and their ilk, but only one person has to take the initiative to set it up. PC-to-PC calls might still make sense if you’re communicating from different countries, but within the United States, PC-to-phone is where it’s at.

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Sound quality, with most of the services I tried, was quite an improvement over the PC-to-PC options we tried (I’m using a 56k modem and a full-duplex sound card). A correspondent in New Jersey said my voice came through “clear and delicious,” even though I had earlier accused her of living in an ivory womb. The incoming sound, over my PC speakers, was similar to that of a good speakerphone. If the proliferation of mobile phones has done anything, it’s conditioned folks to endure mediocre sound quality for additional convenience, and that should certainly help draw users to companies like Dialpad. The only other qualitative difference between Web-to-phone and a cellular call is a fairly long pause when the person on the other line picks up. It’s sort of like a call from a telemarketer, but in reverse.

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Service to service, I couldn’t detect a consistent difference in sound quality, but there were vast differences in ease of use. Here’s my analysis:

Dialpad.com: I’ll add my approval to the deafening roar of support from our readers, and from Mr. Gottlieb. It’s not as easy as picking up the phone, but it’s as close as you can get online. The service runs from a Java Applet on their site, so you don’t have to download or install anything–just sign up for a free account, and you’re on your way. Dialpad promises that international service is on the way, although their first priority is improving sound quality.

MyfreeLD.com: Similar to Dialpad, but it requires a free download of Microsoft’s Netmeeting 3.0 (a 1.5MB download). The download is a hassle, but it’s a worthy second choice, particularly if Dialpad is busy. Interestingly, especially for our friends in the Department of Justice, it’s the only service that requires you to use Internet Explorer as your browser. The site also claims that compatibility with AOL can be a problem. I don’t use AOL, so I don’t know if this is unique to MyfreeLD or a more common problem. Perhaps it would work better on the Microsoft Network?

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PhoneFree: Bruce couldn’t use PhoneFree’s PC-to-phone service because it wasn’t compatible with his cable modem. I tried to use it, but couldn’t get past the credit-card verification page. (Quit snickering–I tried several cards, and the same cards worked with other pay PC-to-phone sites.) After several tries over a three-day period, I gave up. If you can get it to work, it requires two downloads–the normal PhoneFree package, and a separate Web-to-phone supplement. Ironically, it is not free–$15 a month for domestic service, and $29 per month for domestic coupled with Western European service.

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Callrewards.com: Free? Perhaps. Immediate? Not at all. Once you visit the site and set up the account, you have to wait for e-mail notification before you can download the application software. I signed in yesterday, but I’m not holding my breath.

Aside from mediocre sound and occasional service outages, good PC-to-phone services have only two big downsides–you can’t be called back on your computer, and you can’t make international calls. Later on, I’ll look at some of the services that let you make PC-to-international phone calls for a fee, and I’d love to hear from readers who use these services. (E-mail me at anieland@coolemail.com.) For now, Ms. Notify is nagging me to get to an early meeting.

Andrew

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