Tools Of The Trade: Skype internet telephony

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The Independent Online

We are sceptical folk at "Tools of the Trade", and few technologies are generating as much hype as internet telephony right now. But the idea of being able to make calls across the web, at no cost, from wherever you are, is attractive.

We are sceptical folk at "Tools of the Trade", and few technologies are generating as much hype as internet telephony right now. But the idea of being able to make calls across the web, at no cost, from wherever you are, is attractive.

This is the thinking behind Skype, the application that has already been downloaded by more than 100 million users around the world. The company has just launched two new services that expand its offering of calls to other internet users and, for a fee, landlines.

SkypeIn allocates users a geographical phone number, so that non-Skype that users can call using a conventional phone. There is also a voicemail service.

Skype is based on a software application and, apart from a micro-phone and headphones, it has no need for any other hardware. Launching the application brings up an interface that will be familiar to anyone who has used instant messaging, but with a couple of extra buttons for making calls.

Double-click on a Skype user and, as long as they have you in their own Skype address book, making calls is free. The cost for SkypeOut calls to regular landlines (and mobiles in some countries, such as the US) is just 1.7 euro cents (1p) a minute. The the SkypeIn and voicemail service together cost €30 a year.

This adds up to a flexible package that seems to work well, as long as you have a broadband internet connection. There is no noticeable difference, either, between using Skype on a fixed-line internet link and over a wireless connection.

Sound quality is reasonable, although it is not quite up to fixed-line or mobile standards. Much depends on the quality of the PC's audio hardware and the choice of microphone.

A high-quality soundcard is vital - in fact, Skype will not work on those business PCs (a minority) that come without one. As important is picking the right headset, and ideally Skype would work well with a Bluetooth headset, as Bluetooth is built into most laptops now.

In practice, this seemed to be the least effective way to use Skype; A simple wired microphone and headphones give better results. For laptop users, a dedicated USB headset is probably the best option, although these are relatively expensive at around £50.

At the moment, personal internet phone technologies such as this may not be ideal for the office. Skype requires a computer connection to the web in order to work, whereas alternative internet phone systems work without a PC and can connect to an ordinary phone. This makes managing calls much easier. Without such integration, handling Skype, phone and mobile calls can be inconvenient.

But for anyone who works from home part of the time and does not want the expense of a dedicated business line - and for travellers who want to be contacted on the road - Skype is a very cost-effective alternative to using a mobile.

THE VERDICT

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pros: free Skype-to-Skype calls, including international.

Cons: only works with a computer, not regular phones.

Price: from free.

Contact: www.skype.com

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