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The Cutting Edge | E-Review / A Weekly Look at a Technology,
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Devices Ring In Better Quality for Web Phone Calls

August 03, 2000|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Telephone engineers have spent a century perfecting the ultimate consumer device: the home phone, an appliance so comfortable and easy that even a preschooler can use it.

So you would think that computer engineers would have learned from the humble telephone when they started designing Internet telephones--devices that allow people to make free or very cheap long-distance phone calls using regular Internet connections.

Not a chance. Over the past five years there have been all sorts of Rube Goldberg-like setups: microphones, speakers, software installations, wires galore and any number of annoying requirements such as making the person receiving your phone call use the same device.

It's been a mess, but the situation is changing. A few companies have just begun to sell Internet telephone devices that--astoundingly--allow people to use regular telephones to make a call over the Internet. What a breakthrough.

The $160 Yap Jack made by Hackensack, N.J.-based Net2Phone Inc. and the $100 Internet Phone Wizard by Actiontec Electronics Inc. of Sunnyvale are two new devices that have begun to make home Internet phones decent consumer products.

A third product, TalkFree from Utah-based I-Link Inc., goes one step further, eliminating the need for any new hardware or software. Just a telephone, a computer and a Web browser is enough to use the service.

I have used many home Internet phone systems over the past few years and the sound quality of this latest batch is by far the best--a tad better than cellular phones and, in the case of I-Link's TalkFree, almost as good as a regular phone call.

Internet calling is still nowhere near as simple or convenient as using a regular phone. Businesses, home office users or families that don't make many long-distance calls shouldn't bother. But it is a good option for heavy overseas or domestic callers on a budget who don't mind trading off a little quality for a much cheaper price.

The cost ranges from free for domestic calls in the case of Actiontec's Internet Phone Wizard and the TalkFree service to up to 70% off international calls with Net2Phone's Yap Jack.

Internet Phone Wizard

The Internet Phone Wizard is a little box that sits between a computer and a home phone. It connects to the computer through a universal serial port and to the phone with a regular phone line.

The Phone Wizard requires a special program loaded on the computer and, of course, you need an Internet connection, which typically costs about $20 a month.

To make a phone call, you first connect to your usual Internet service provider and then activate the Phone Wizard program.

When you pick up the telephone, the Phone Wizard automatically opens up a Web page for an Internet phone service provider, which makes the phone connection over the Internet. You can choose from several free services. I picked Dialpad.com on Actiontec's recommendation.

Dialpad.com allows free phone calls within the United States and Canada. It does not allow international calls, although there are other services that offer them on a limited basis.

After logging into Dialpad's Web page, you use your phone to dial the number. In a few seconds, a phone connection is made and you can start talking. The process may sound simple, but in reality, it isn't.

The problem is that the Phone Wizard relies heavily on the computer. Instead of focusing on the simplicity of the telephone, the device ends up dragging in all sorts of computer issues, such as installing software and loading hardware drivers.

The installation process is not too bad for those used to working on their computers, but the less savvy should be prepared for such techie instructions as: "Double click on the icon for IPW.EXE located at the root level of the CD-ROM disc."

The Phone Wizard is also poorly integrated with the Internet phone services. It is essentially tacked on to these free services, resulting in many annoying extra steps to make a phone call, such as logging into a service and clicking on a variety of boxes that don't relate to the Phone Wizard. The whole process seems more slapped together than any product of the past.

Even when the system is all set up, the sound quality is only passable. It's about on par with a cellular phone, complete with clipped words, annoying gaps and occasional muddy sounds.

Yap Jack

A much better solution is the Yap Jack. It's another little box, but one that doesn't need a computer to work. You still need your own Internet service, but the Yap Jack has a built-in modem so it can connect to the Internet on its own without a computer.

A regular phone plugs into the Yap Jack, which then plugs directly into the wall. Simple.

Now comes the hard part. You have to enter your Net2Phone account number, password, your local Internet phone number, your Internet account name and password into the Yap Jack.

The only way to do this is with the telephone dialpad. Numbers are entered directly, but for letters, you have to use various combinations on the dialpad.

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