Web & communication software

Dialing for Less

Even in the age of e-mail and iChat, sometimes it’s easier to pick up the phone. After all, you can get an instant response, and it’s nice to hear a voice once in a while. Now you no longer have to stray from your Mac when you want to call home. New software phones, or softphones, let you make long-distance (and even overseas) calls at a fraction of the cost of a regular phone call—and in some cases, for free.

I can almost hear you saying “So what? I can talk to people with iChat now.” True, you can use iChat to text-, video-, and voice-chat with others, but there are some major differences between that program and a softphone. Most important, iChat allows you to converse only with Mac users also running iChat and with Windows users running AIM 5.5 or higher. A softphone allows you to use your Mac to talk to anyone who has telephone service.

In this article, I’ll look at how softphone technology works. Then I’ll walk through a setup with Skype, a popular application now available for Mac OS X.

How It Works

Softphones are based on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). When you use VoIP, you send voice data over packet-based networks (for example, the Internet) instead of over traditional telephone networks. VoIP achieves this feat by relying on several proprietary audio codecs that compress the voice data before sending it and then decompress it on the receiving end. Skype’s codecs, for example, deliver bit rates between 3 and 16 Kbps, depending on the amount of available bandwidth.

Until recently, VoIP required a small hardware device that you plugged directly into a cable or DSL modem (no computer required). You could then connect any standard telephone to that device and receive a dial tone. A softphone essentially lets you replace the hardware box with your computer. It uses a Mac’s built-in microphone and speaker, and relies upon today’s processing power to convert analog audio to digital.

Why Skype? Several companies make Mac-compatible softphone software, including Vonage ) and SIPphone. Both require a monthly account, and both license X-Ten’s softphone software. So why did I pick Skype for this article? Chiefly because it’s free, it’s easy to try out, and it already has many subscribers (Skype says that it has distributed more than 28 million copies of its software). You can make free computer-to-computer calls only with others who sign up.

Skype relies on the public Internet to transmit voice data, so it’s susceptible to quality degradation during peak traffic periods. My testing produced acceptable results, with voice quality on par with what you’d expect from a digital mobile phone (and without the delay you often encounter when using iChat). As with a cell phone, dropouts happen and you can lose a call entirely during peak traffic hours. And Skype uses the almost unbreakable 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) to keep your calls private.

More Features for More Money Skype won’t do if you’re looking for features such as a number where you can receive traditional phone calls, a Web-based dashboard that lists your recent calls and gives you access to call-forwarding and voice-mail settings, or the ability to receive voice-mail messages via e-mail attachments. If that’s the case, you should subscribe to a for-pay service such as Vonage or SIPphone, both of which charge about $25 per month for unlimited calls to the United States and Canada.

Get Started with Skype

Ready to start dialing? Begin by downloading the Skype client software for Mac OS X. After installation, you select a user name and password. Once you see the program’s main interface, log in—and you’re online.

Assemble Your Gear To get the best call quality, you need a high-speed Internet service such as DSL or cable. You’ll also want to use a headset (or handset) for your Mac. Although the built-in microphone on your Mac or iSight will do, a headset will help eliminate echo and background noise. Note that Mac users haven’t been able to get Bluetooth headsets to work with the Skype beta. (See this thread in the Skype forums for more information.) SIPphone’s $15 SIP Handset saves you multiple visits to the Sound preference pane. Pick it up to dial, and all audio routes through it. Hang it up, and audio automatically goes back through your speakers. Unfortunately, you need Griffin Technology’s $40 iMic adapter and possibly a speaker adapter to make the SIPphone work.

Testing, Testing Test your sound setup by calling the testing robot. Type

echo123
into the field in the bottom half of the My Skype tab and click on Call. A voice-mail greeting asks you to record a message that Skype then reads back to you. If you can hear your repeated message, you’ve set up your audio properly.

Find Your Friends To call someone, you need his or her Skype user name—simply type it into the field in the bottom half of the My Skype tab and click on the Call button. If you don’t have the user name, click on the Search For Users button or select Find Users from the Contacts tab. Find Users allows you to search the Skype directory by user name, full name, e-mail address, phone number, or even age, city, state, country, language, or sex. While most people will use Skype as an inexpensive alternative to a traditional long-distance carrier, the service has great potential as a research resource or even a dating service.

Ring Up Regular Phones If you don’t want to talk to people only when they’re at their computers, buy SkypeOut minutes. With this service, you can make inexpensive calls to land-line (or in some cases mobile) phones anywhere in the world. International calls are the same price as local ones. For example, a SkypeOut call from my PowerBook in Pennsylvania to my neighbor’s phone (not his computer) in Pennsylvania costs the same as calling a phone in London, Moscow, or Stockholm.

At press time, the SkypeOut Global Rate was €0.017 (at press time, about 2 cents) per minute. This covers calls to numbers in 20 countries, including the United States (except Alaska and Hawaii), the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden (see find.macworld.com/ 0148 for details). Unless mobile phones are specifically mentioned, SkypeOut rates are for calling land lines only. Calls to mobile phones are usually more expensive.

SkypeOut credits are available in two denominations—€10 and €25. For €10 (about $13), you get almost 10 hours of talk time at the Skype Global Rate, while €25 (about $32) gives you close to 25 hours. To purchase SkypeOut credit from the Web site, you must use either a Visa or a Diners Club card and Internet Explorer. (At press time, the site didn’t work with Safari.)

Making calls with SkypeOut is easy. First, make sure you have enough credit for a one-minute call to your destination. (The My Account section of the My Skype tab lists your balance, or you can check it by logging into the My Account section at Skype.com.) Enter a plus sign (+) and the telephone number (including the country code) in the field and click on Call.

Hello? When someone calls you through Skype, you’ll hear a friendly phone ring. Answer the call by clicking on the Answer button. You can then opt to add the caller to your Skype contact database or block a nuisance caller. If you don’t know the caller’s identity, you can review his or her online profile. For privacy and security reasons, I don’t recommend completing all of the fields in your own profile.

Handy Extras While you’re connected with a caller, you can send him or her an instant message, a file, or selected contacts—handy if you want to send a buddy the user names of mutual Skype friends. You can also perform typical phone actions, such as muting an active call.

The Skype client for Mac OS X that I tested is the first beta version (0.9.0.1). You’ll find troubleshooting advice in the Skype Mac OS X forums.

Dialing for Fewer Dollars

Thanks to softphones, you have a whole new way to keep in touch. If you’ve got friends, family, or colleagues living abroad and you’re tired of paying hefty long-distance charges, check it out. After all, free is a hard price to beat.

[ Jason D. O’Grady is the editor of O’Grady’s PowerPage and a chapter editor for The Mac Panther Bible (Peachpit Press, 2004). ]

From Skype’s main window, you can make and receive phone calls, search for other users, and send files.

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