Using the Virtuoso to Make FREE Phone Calls to Anywhere in the World

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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 digital.

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.

Internet telephony
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 exceptional.

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
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.

Go2Call.com
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 $18/month.

MediaRing.com
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.

NetMeeting
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.com
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.

PhoneFree.com
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 services.

Roundup
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.