Talk is cheap, but only if you are doing it face to face. Start using a phone (landline or mobile), and you pay. But what about the Internet? Voice over IP (or VoIP) is growing in popularity because there are no charges to pay for the telephony itself. This is true regardless of where you are calling: whether you're calling someone in your own street or someone half way across the world, the call is still free. VoIP simply uses capacity you already have at your disposal when you are online.
Not surprisingly, VoIP is setting both the consumer and business worlds alight at the moment, and causing some concerns for traditional landline providers. If we move to making voice calls over the Internet, where are the landline providers going to make their money?
VoIP is taking off for home users largely thanks to broadband. You donâ€™t technically need a broadband connection for the technology to work, but broadband is better than dial-up because of the data throughput speeds and always-on nature of broadband connections.
As broadband becomes more widespread in the home, the potential market for VoIP grows, and the range of products on offer expands. VoIPâ€™s core is the Internet and the hardware requirements are minimal. So the range of VoIP enabled hardware is varied. Weâ€™ve already looked at an ADSL router with VoIP support - the Zoom Zoomtel X5v 5566.
But if you already have a router, or are looking for a simple solution, perhaps just making your first foray into VoIP, the new VoIP Cyberphone from Firebox might be more suitable. At Â£30 it is pretty much an impulse buy, and assuming you are already paying for a broadband connection itâ€™s all you need for free Internet telephony.
Well, thatâ€™s not quite true. You also need some software, and it needs to be the same as that on the computers of the people you want to call. The VoIP software of the moment is Skype. It comes in two versions, one designed for making Internet calls only, and another which will also make low cost calls to landlines around the world. The VoIP Cyberphone comes with the Internet telephony only version of Skype, so you donâ€™t need to bother with downloading it.
OK, so much for the background. How well does the kit actually work? I tried it on a laptop computer, the idea being that Iâ€™d get Skype access wherever the laptop and Firebox VoIP Cyberphone happened to travel to.
Step one is to install the provided software. There are two elements to this, Skype itself and some code that enables the phone hardware to communicate with it.
The CD auto-runs, so thatâ€™s good. Thereafter though, things got bad. I hit the install button and a setup icon was dropped onto my desktop. I double clicked this and it refused to run.
Next to the install button is a Help icon so I hit that. The help told me to run a file from the CD but not how to find it. Being a clever-clogs I used My Computer to â€˜Openâ€™ the install CD. Then I double clicked the file, which just copied the non-working setup icon onto my desktop again. Out of desperation I double clicked the Setup icon on the install CD, and, would you believe it, installation began.
Iâ€™ve gone into so much detail about this because causing users to fall at the first hurdle of the installation really is a serious crime. If it werenâ€™t for this the Cyberphone would have got 8 points for ease of setup.
Still, after that, the installation went very smoothly indeed.
During the installation I was told there was a new version of Skype available and asked if I wanted that. OK, I thought, why not. Going for the upgrade didnâ€™t seem to affect operation of the software that ingratiates the phone and Skype, which is good as that software is very important, as youâ€™ll see later on.
Setting up a Skype account is probably the most testing thing youâ€™ll do after getting over the first installation hurdle. The trickiest part is probably going to be choosing a name for yourself. Take care as it will be the name people use to call you. Something funny or quirky might do for your friends, but not for Aunt Aggie. A simple â€œfirstnameâ€ â€œlastnameâ€ format might be best.
You can provide plenty of information about yourself, including a picture if you want. The information you enter helps people to find you online, and anyone can take a look at your details when they are searching for contacts with which to populate their own lists. Personally, I keep my Skype information absolutely minimal.