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A Buying Guide to Internet Telephones

Handheld and desktop models enable free or cheap calls anywhere.

By Michael Antonoff

Given the epic impact of the Internet on human activity, you may not have noticed how the Net is transforming the ordinary act of talking on the telephone. The plain old telephone system (POTS) is being upended by Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling.

In its infancy VoIP connections required both parties to be seated in front of Ethernet-attached computers equipped with microphones and headphones. Audio quality and reliability suffered when the Internet or local area network was congested. Nonetheless, users put up with such glitches because of the rates – there weren't any! And it wasn't relevant if the conversation was cross town or across an ocean. Nor did it matter whether the yakking went on for five minutes or five hours.

Click above to watch a video about the Asus Skype Videophone Touch

VoIP's quality of service improved as transfer speeds rose, carrying capacity increased, and newer protocols were introduced that prioritized voice over other types of data packets. Also, thanks to an upsurge in Wi-Fi networks in homes, offices, and public spaces, using a VoIP handset became as unfettered as a cordless phone. A variety of equipment is now available for home or office, and there's even a just-introduced videophone.

One of the most popular applications developed for Internet telephony is Skype. Once you set up a free Skype account, calls to and from other Skype users are free. Additional amenities such as voice mail and the ability to call people with a POTS landline or mobile phone incur small fees. Among the following phones, ones from Asus, Belkin, and Keysan use Skype; the models from D-Link and Ooma rely on other VoIP services.

Asus Skype Videophone TouchThe Asus Skype Videophone Touch is the first touch-screen videophone for Skype that you use without a computer. Featuring a 7-inch (800 x 480 pixels) LCD touch screen, the Skype Videophone shows live video of the person conversing at the other end as well as an inset (bottom right) of you– the picture seen by the other party. People on the other end can use a computer and webcam or another Skype Videophone. (You can purchase videophones as a kit of 2.) Calls to and from other Skype users are free, but fees apply when calling those on landlines or mobile phones. (The rates are still less than conventional calls.) Though there's an Ethernet port on the back, you may not need to connect the included cable since the device embeds 802.11g Wi-Fi. You can use the Videophone Touch as a speakerphone or with an optional headset such as the Sennheiser PC 161 Stereo Headset, for privacy and better audio quality.

There's a rechargeable battery in the videophone, so as long as you're in Wi-Fi range you'll be able to use the phone without necessarily being tethered to an electrical outlet. Be aware, though, that the battery peters out after 20 minutes of talk time or 30 minutes of standby time; such are the demands of the screen and Wi-Fi. At least the battery is replaceable.

Potential Skype Videophone users include long-distance relatives reaching out to their children or grandchildren and associates of far-flung businesses who can benefit from staying in touch visually.

Wi-Fi Phone for Skype from Belkin
Wi-Fi Phone for Skype from Belkin

The Wi-Fi Phone for Skype from Belkin provides free unlimited Skype-to-Skype calls using a Wi-Fi network whether you're at home, in the office, or somewhere else. The phone can be used with secured or open access Wi-Fi networks as long as the hot spot doesn't require browser-based authentication. The Belkin phone doesn't contain a browser. So, for example, it won't work at Starbucks, where you need to launch your browse to authorize the connection. But within your own Wi-Fi network or an unobstructed public hot spot, you'll be talk-ready. You can even use the phone when your home computer is off. The phone, which isn't much larger than a chocolate bar, contains a color LCD. The internal battery, charged via an electrical outlet or USB port, is good for 30 hours in standby mode or three hours of talk.

Keysan Cordless VoIP Phone for Skype
Keysan Cordless VoIP Phone for Skype

The Keysan Cordless VoIP Phone for Skype is a PC peripheral that affords you the freedom of a cordless phone by letting you roam at up to 100-feet away from your Windows or Macintosh computer free of wires. You plug the included USB base station into your computer and charge the handset's three included Ni-HH AAA batteries using the USB charging cable. You can also use alkaline batteries. The phone can be deployed for both PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone calling. Calls are made through your computer's broadband connection using Skype. You open and close Skype with a single button on the phone. The phone's LCD display indicates battery level and signal quality and shows you who's online.

DPH-140S Business IP Phone
DPH-140S Business IP Phone

Compatible with several VoIP service providers, the DPH-140S Business IP Phone is from D-Link, a leading manufacturer of local area network (LAN) routers. Connect one of the phone's two RJ-45 jacks to an Ethernet cable (not included), and you'll be ready to set up the phone to make and receive voice calls through your broadband modem. The DPH-140S comprises Quality of Service (QoS) functions to convey clear, high-fidelity voice communication even when the LAN is experiencing high usage. QoS prioritizes voice packets over other data packets. The desktop phone includes a speakerphone and 2.5-inch LCD to show caller ID text, numbers you dial, and 200-entry address book. You can save 10 numbers in memory for speed dialing. The phone also supports redial, mute, transfer, voicemail LED, 3-way calling, call waiting, call forwarding, and hold.

Ooma Hub and Scout VoIP Phone System
Ooma Hub and Scout VoIP Phone System

The Ooma Hub and Scout VoIP Phone System lets you connect your existing phones to your broadband connection, enabling free phone service in the U.S. and low rates for international calling. (The Hub is pictured above; the Scout is behind to the left.) The Ooma system works independently of your computers. Bundled features include caller ID and call waiting. With voice mail, you'll be able to access messages remotely from any phone or Web browser or have your messages forwarded to email. When you dial 911, emergency personnel will automatically have your registered address. The system is designed to provide the voice quality of a conventional landline. You can add an Ooma Scout to another room for hooking up an additional phone and an instant second line.

So, whether you're phoning from home or office and satisfied with voice calls or ready to meet The Jetsons with a videophone, VoIP choices abound for cutting the cord on your conventional phone company.

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