Using the Virtuoso to Make FREE Phone Calls to Anywhere in the World
by Jim Hanks
A couple of years ago, I used Dialpad.com to make a free call
to New York and experienced a connection so poor that I wrote off
internet telephony completely. Admittedly, part of the problem was my
own fault—I used my computer's microphone and speakers for the
call. Well, things have changed in the last year. Not only has
internet telephony technology improved, but I now have a Hello
Direct-brand Virtuoso Multimedia Amplifier with a Multiplier module
and a Hello Direct headset. This system allows me to use my headset
for all of my telephony needs, including clear, FREE internet calls.
Sold as a package with the headset (you can choose between several
different Hello Direct headsets), the Virtuoso amplifier and the
Multiplier module supply you with the necessary technology to link
your computer to your telephone. Setup is easy. Hook up the amplifier
between your telephone's base and its handset, and plug in a headset.
Next, snap on the Multiplier module, and connect a cord from the
Multiplier to your computer's microphone and speaker ports. Finally,
get a dialtone and press Hello Direct's patented LEARN button. This
last step will optimize performance by adjusting the amplifier to the
particular characteristics of your telephone system, analog or
When you place a standard telephone call, now you use the
amplifier to adjust the incoming and outgoing volume levels, or to
mute your voice—in case you have to cough, for example, or make
a comment to a co-worker your caller needn't hear. Most importantly,
the Multiplier will let you toggle between standard telephone use,
telephone call recording, dictation, working with speech recognition
programs, listening to music with your computer, or making internet
telephone calls. Best of all, you can do all this with the simple
slide of a switch.
Although there are various methods to employ internet telephony,
you are basically reducing sound to voice packets which are sent
over the internet. Right now, this technology continues to experience
growing pains, but the Voice over IP (VoIP) market is estimated to
exceed $19 billion by 2004. In this article, I will discuss how using
the Virtuoso with the Multiplier module can vastly improve internet
telephony. For the most part, I will focus on the portion of this
technology that is immediately accessible and immeasurably desirable
to most people: free internet calling. At the end of this article I
will review a few services that let you make these calls.
But before we get to that, you are probably wondering...
Is internet telephony a reliable method of communication?
A lot of people have signed up for internet telephony, though
they may have actually used it only once due to poor results. Has it
gotten any better? Is it as reliable as a standard telephone call?
Well, yes, and sometimes. I'd have to say that right now the main
advantage of internet telephony isn't convenience or clarity, but
price. And whether the connection is PC-to-PC or PC-to-phone, the
quality can be fickle. Once in a while you get only one side of the
conversation, and sometimes you don't get a connection at all and you
have to redial. To ensure better bandwidth and hence a clearer
connection, it's best to make calls during the continental United
States' off-peak hours, on weekends and on weekdays between 7 p.m.
and 7 a.m. During normal business hours, I've found that about 1 out
of every 7 calls is as clear as a regular telephone call. The other 6
calls have had passable connections with some breakups. However,
during off-peak hours I've found that almost every connection is
There are a few things you can do to improve your connection. Most
importantly, invest in a headset; it can make an enormous difference
at both ends of a conversation. Many of
Hello Direct's headsets are engineered with noise-canceling microphones and are
offered at significant discounts when purchased with a Virtuoso
amplifier. When making a free call, incoming sound is good but
outgoing sound is often weak. Bending your headset's microphone until
it's in the optimal position (spelled out in the booklet Hello Direct
includes with the headset) helps remedy this problem.
Overall, I'd have to say that the connection quality isn't quite
there yet for making client calls. But you should definitely use the
telephony services to call co-workers or friends who don't mind an
occasional kink. After all, the call is free.
What do you need?
Most free internet call services will not work with proxy
servers, will have difficulty functioning behind firewalls, and will
not support Linux or Macintosh operating systems. Otherwise, the
applications usually require MS Windows 95/98/NT/2000, an internet
connection (the faster the better, but 33.6 Kbps will suffice), a
sound card, a current web browser, and a headset. Instead of a
headset, you can use your computer's speakers and a microphone, but
echoes (caused by sound that the microphone picks up from the
speakers) and background noise will make conversations frustrating
and often incomprehensible.
This is where the Virtuoso package makes all the difference. The
Virtuoso amplifier optimizes the connection, the headset's speaker(s)
refines the incoming sound, and the headset's microphone cancels out
background noise. When making free calls without the Virtuoso setup,
that age-old maxim, "You get what you pay for," comes into play.
For this article, I used a Toshiba Satellite 1695CDT notebook (with a 600 MHz
processor, Windows 98SE, and Internet Explorer 5.0), a DSL
connection, the Virtuoso (with the Multiplier module), and Hello Direct's Ultralight®
EX Single headset. The Virtuoso with the Multiplier module and an Ultralight
EX retails for $199.99. Other
Virtuoso packages with over-the-ear headsets or dual-speaker headsets are
also available from the Hello Direct web site or paper catalog.
Free phone call services
The services described below do not charge fees. Most require you
to download free software from a web site, and ask you to provide
some marketing information about yourself (which is used to customize
banner ads). All of these services allow you to call 800 numbers from
outside of the U.S. and usually offer address books that are
permanently stored on their server. Depending on which service you
use, free calls can be made from any PC to telephones in the U.S.,
Canada, China, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, South Korea,
Sweden, and the Netherlands. If you are calling from your PC to
another PC, likely anyone in the world with internet access can be
reached at no charge.
Dialpad.com wins the design award. The look is very stylish, its
banner ads are fairly unobtrusive, and software needn't be
downloaded. Dialpad.com is also the easiest service to use. Free
PC-to-phone calls can be made from anywhere to the U.S. and South
Korea. If both call participants have signed up with Dialpad.com,
PC-to-PC calls can be made from and to any place in the world. To
make such a call, just type in the person's user ID instead of their
phone number. If they are online, the call will be connected.
Much like Dialpad.com, this European service does not require the
downloading of software. It provides unlimited free calling to
Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK,
and the U.S., from anywhere in the world.
Go2Call will also give you 600
minutes of PC-to-phone service to all other European countries for
MediaRing.com is best if you want to reach China and Canada
specifically. Not many extras are supported, but you can also send
voice mail messages to people VERY easily. Once recorded, the voice
mail is stored on MediaRing.com's server and a link is sent to the
recipient (much like an e-invite). When the recipient clicks the
link, your message will be played without any special software
required. This service is especially helpful when your voice mail
recipient is not technology savvy or has a Macintosh computer.
This is a popular service, particularly because it is included with
Windows 2000. It is most commonly used to make PC-to-PC calls
between 2 people with NetMeeting. After you verify that your
desired participant is online (using the MSN Messenger Service, which is also
included with Windows 2000), you can verbally talk to them and
collaborate on shared files through your PCs. With additional
hardware and software, NetMeeting also supports video.
MSN Messenger offers a
pared-down PC-to-phone service that is easy to use, requires you to download a
small file, and is powered by the application, Net2Phone.
Net2Phone requires you to download about 600 K worth of software that
is available in various language formats. The dialpad and menu
screens aren't very well designed and don't fit comfortably on your
screen. The major benefit of this service is that it's very easy to
send voice mail to an e-mail account. As long as the receiver has
signed up with Net2Phone, they
can hear the message just by clicking the attachment. Net faxing is
also available for a nominal fee. The
Yahoo! Messenger is also
powered by Net2Phone.
The main advantages of PhoneFree are the extras. This service
provides echo cancelation, a white pages directory to check for
online users, and a voice messaging service that records and sends
messages as .wav files. The .wav file is stored on your hard drive
and you e-mail it whenever and for whomever you like. Recipients
needn't have signed up to PhoneFree to hear the message, but can use
whatever media program they already have (such as Windows Media
Player). Sure, e-mailing a .wav file is hardly a novel concept, but
PhoneFree's format is easy to use and it lets you attach pictures,
files, or text messages. PhoneFree also offers PC-to-phone service to
anywhere in the world at discounted rates (often around 50% cheaper
than traditional competitors). The drawbacks are a 1 MB software
download, a so-so design, and more advertising than the other
If you're big on design and ease of use, I recommend
Dialpad.com. Most likely NetMeeting will become the industry standard, though, so you might want to
become familiar with it. Otherwise, PhoneFree.com offers the best
features, and Go2Call gives you access to Europe.
Here's a quick, easy test. Pick a service, then make a call to,
say, a fish ‘n' chips shop in England. Without a
headset/amplifier setup, you'll see why I have been so disappointed
with internet telephony up to now. "Eh?" might be the only thing you
hear. But after you buy a
Virtuoso package, you will have full hands-free telephone capabilities,
access to speech recognition and call recording, and clear
connections to friends and co-workers nearly anywhere. The Virtuoso
should pay for itself in a hurry.