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Skype and the Traveler

2004 Max Lent

An issue that I have lived with for years is communicating with relatives who live overseas.  Direct phone calls can cost almost a dollar a minute and the call quality is usually fair to poor.  Calling card calls have cost from 25 to 50 cents and sometimes more a minute and the call quality poor to awful.  Setting up computer to computer telephone calls have been next to impossible because of technical difficulties and ergonomic issues.

At last I have found a solution in two parts.  The first part deals with the ergonomics of using a computer as a telephone.  Stand alone microphones and speakers just don't work in the real world, especially with non-technical users.  What these folks want is a telephone or at least a telephone handset.  Such a handset is available from Sipphone.  As you can see from the photo, it looks and works just like a telephone.  What is ingenious about the handset is that it plugs in to the computer's speaker and microphone jacks and also has a jack on the cable that permits the computer speaker cable to plug into the handset cable.  What's more there is a switch on the handset that turns off the computer speakers when it is lifted off a table or removed from its cradle.  There's even a volume control on the handset.  The most wonderful is that the handset costs only about $14.95.  You will need two.  Send the second one to the person with you want to communicate.  (No, I don't sell these or profit from selling them to you.)

The second solution is a program that enables one computer to call another over the Internet without requiring a fast connection or a technically complex installation.  The solution is Skype from Skype.com.  The program is free, installs in seconds on Windows or Mac computers and is easy for non-technical users to operate.  You and the person with whom you want to communicate register with Skype and then you are ready to communicate.  The sound quality is better than cell phones and much better than calling card or call back systems.  Did I mention that this is free!

The only issues that I have experienced have nothing to do with the technology, but with behavior.  Unless both parties have always-on Internet connections, they will have to arrange a date and time to speak with each other.  One of doing this is to send each other emails to arrange a calling time.  Another method is to place a regular long distance call to the other person and ask them to turn on their computer and await your Skype call.  That call should not take more than a minute.  Paying for a one minute call to set up a Skype conversation that is free is still a great bargain.  Remember that Skype is free and that you don't have a time limit on your calls.

Taking Skype use to the next level

In first section I described how two desktop computers can communicate over the Web.  In this section I will describe how to use Skype with portable devices such as a notebook computer and a PDA.
Skype works great with notebook computers and at least some WiFi enabled PDAs.  What made Skype work great with a desktop computer was the handset from Sipphone.  That same handset can be used with a notebook computer, but notebook computer users may prefer to use a headset.  The headset leaves hands free for typing or just holding the notebook computer.  A computer headset is needed if you are going to use a headset and Skype with your notebook computer.  The computer headset differs from an cell phone headset in that it has two plugs.  One plug is for the microphone socket and the other is for the speaker socket of your notebook computer.  

The product at right is a typical computer headset from one of the more famous brands of headsets, Plantronics.  This headset is just an example, there are others that are less and more expensive available from Amazon computer accessories.  This unit and ones like it work best with notebook computers while the Sipphone handset works best with desktop computers. 
 

The Sipphone's ability to shut off the computer's speakers when it is being used makes it ideal for desktop computers.  However, a headset can be used with a desktop computer if the computer speakers can be turned off while the headset is being used.

If you own a WiFi enabled Pocket PC that has a microphone or microphone jack, you may be able to use it as a Skype phone.  Go to Skype.com and download the Pocket PC version of Skype and give it a try. 

I'm using a Dell Axim X30 that has WiFi capability.  I plug an earphone bud into the audio out jack of the Axim and use the built in microphone of the Axim to make my calls.  The Axim works adequately.  I get complaints from those whom I speak with that my voice sounds hollow, but I can hear the speaker perfectly.  The PDA solution works adequately.  Its portability makes up for the slightly degraded sound quality.  The newer Dell X50 supposedly works much better.  Not all Pocket PCs work well as VOIP clients.  Slower Megahertz PDAs do not handle VOIP applications as well as faster PDAs.  My Dell Axim runs at 628 MHz.  If you plan to purchase a PDA to use for wireless voice communications, search the Web for reviews before you make your purchase.       

 


 
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