NOTE: This article has nothing to do with genealogy, other than perhaps providing a cheap method for you to call your distant relatives. However, I have written before about Skype and thought I would offer one more article describing its uses.
The best part of all is the price of calls: calling anyone else who uses Skype is always free of charge, even if that person is located in another part of the world. Unlimited calls to standard telephones anywhere in North America cost $3.00 a month. (Skype's competitors typically charge $15 to $30 a month for the same thing.) Overseas calls are also cheap: I can call telephones in England or New Zealand or even China for two cents a minute. Calls to Mexico are two or three cents a minute, depending upon the Mexican area code being called. Calls to other countries typically cost two to perhaps five cents per minute. Calls to some third-world countries or to tiny islands in the South Pacific can cost more. The rates are always a fraction of what traditional telephone companies charge. The complete list of call rates may be found at http://www.skype.com/prices/callrates.
I also appreciate the sound quality of Skype calls. Skype-to-Skype calls are almost high fidelity, whereas calls placed to traditional telephones are limited to the audio quality provided by the distant telephone company. You can listen to some of the podcasts that I recorded at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/podcasts. Many of them were recorded on Skype-to-telephone calls. In fact, you might want to listen to my conversation with Simon Orde at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2006/05/podcast_an_inte.html. I used a laptop computer in Massachusetts while he was in London, England. We talked Skype-to-Skype, and the audio sounds as if we were both in the same room, even though we were 3,000 miles apart. The audio in that recorded conversation was far better than that of standard telephones.
NOTE: Skype and most other VoIP services work well with DSL, cable modems, and fiber optic Internet connections. They typically do not work well with satellite Internet connections, however, because of the time delays involved. I have used Skype from cruise ships' satellite connections with variable results. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.
When I first started using Skype, I used a headset plugged into my computer's soundboard. This worked well, but I didn't care to be “tethered” to the computer. Cordless phones and cell phones have spoiled me: I like to be able to get up and walk around while talking on the phone. The (wired) headset prevented that. I also did not appreciate the fact that I had to leave the computer running twenty-four hours a day, waiting for possible incoming calls. Luckily, there is an easy solution. In fact, there are multiple solutions.
I prefer to use a cordless phone that will reach anyplace in my house, including the backyard, while talking on Skype. When talking to someone, I want to be able to check items in the refrigerator, pull a document out of my filing cabinet, or simply relax in the backyard. A quick online search produced a dozen or so such devices. Almost all of them look and perform like a standard cordless phone. Unfortunately, most of them connect to a computer's USB port, meaning the computer must be left running all the time. A further search, however, found a few devices that do not require connection to a computer. You simply plug them into your existing broadband modem/router.
NOTE: While you can turn the computer off and continue to use any of the devices I am about to describe, you must leave your broadband modem/router running all the time if you wish to receive incoming calls. Luckily, all those devices consume very little electricity, typically about the same as a nightlight. The amount added to your monthly electrical bill will be trivial. These devices also have no moving parts to wear out.
Over the past three years, I have experimented with several such devices. I will start by describing my favorite.
The Philips VOIP841 has now served me well for more than six months. Upon opening the shipping box, you find what looks like a regular cordless phone (only it is smaller than most such phones), a charging cradle in which to place that phone when not in use, plus a “black box.” The black box serves as the cordless phone base station. It has three connectors on the back and not much else. The connectors are:
- a standard network connector for a cable that goes to the broadband modem/router
- a standard telephone connector for the (optional) cable that goes to a standard telephone line
The Philips VOIP841 is a two-line phone. You can use it both for Skype and for a traditional telephone line. If you keep your traditional phone line, you only need one cordless phone to use both Skype and the traditional telephone service. Keeping a standard phone also avoids all the issues about 911 emergency calls, directory assistance, and other such issues. However, I wasn't concerned with those items. I do not use a standard phone line at all, only my Skype connection.
In use, the Philips VOIP841 functions almost the same as any standard cordless phone you have ever used before. There are two minor exceptions I can think of:
- When placing a call to a standard telephone, you must start off with a plus sign (+) to indicate this is a Skype call. Otherwise, the call will be placed over the traditional phone line. For instance, to call the National Genealogical Society via the Skype connection, I would dial: +1-703-525-0050. That plus sign is important.
- The Philips VOIP841 will display your Skype Phonebook. That is, you can store your phonebook on Skype's servers and then access those listings wherever you are connected. Simply scroll down the list on the VOIP841's tiny screen until you find the one you want and then press TALK. The call is initiated immediately.
The range of the Philips VOIP841 is impressive. It uses DECT, the latest thing in cordless phone technology. (For an explanation of DECT, look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dect.) I have not tested the maximum range, but I can report that this phone is crystal clear anywhere in the house or outside on the lawn. It works better than any of the older cordless phones I have used in the past, although I suspect that modern DECT phones from other manufacturers probably can match its performance. In any case, the Philips VOIP841 works well, and I can turn my computer off without affecting incoming or outgoing phone calls. The battery in the cordless phone will last several days without recharging.
You can also add a standard headset to the Philips VOIP841. You can find these headsets at most any electronics store, office supply store, department store, or other retailer that sells cordless phones and accessories. The headset allows you to walk around the house, talking on the phone in a hands-free manner. That's great when you are cooking dinner, working in the yard, or performing other household chores.
The Philips VOIP841 is a bit expensive, however. The list price is $169 US although almost all the retailers sell it for $129 or less. You can find a long list of retailers at http://www.google.com/products?q=voip841&btnG=Search+Products or even purchase it directly from Skype at http://accessories.skype.com/store/skype/DisplayProductDetailsPage/productID.69958700.
NOTE: Do not confuse the Philips VOIP841 with the model VOIP321 from the same manufacturer. While much cheaper, the VOIP321 plugs into a computer's USB port and requires that you keep the computer on all the time in order to answer incoming calls.
Aside from my favorite, several companies manufacture “wi-fi” phones for use with Skype. These handheld units theoretically can connect directly to any wi-fi base station and do not require a separate base station. In theory, these handheld wi-fi phones can be used at home as well as at any wi-fi hotspot at coffee shops, hotels, airports, train stations and elsewhere. (See the note below that describes exceptions.)
I have used a Linksys iPhone WIP320 and have also seen similar units from Belkin, Netgear, and SMC. I have not been terribly impressed with any of these handheld wi-fi phones. First of all, these wi-fi handheld phones typically do not have a built-in web browser. If the wi-fi hotspot you use requires the entry of a user name or password, there is no means of entering that information from most handheld wi-fi phones. This seems to eliminate 90% of the coffee shops, airports, train stations, and similar wi-fi hotspots. Nevertheless, these wi-fi phones all should work well on your home wi-fi network. They operate with WEP and WPA encrypted networks as well as with unencrypted connections.
Next, all of these wi-fi cordless phones seem to have limited battery life. They typically last eight hours or less between charges. The exact amount of time depends upon how much you talk on the phone. In fact, the Linksys iPhone WIP320 I used actually got hot during telephone calls. You know it is consuming battery power quickly when it gets hot!
You can find a number of wi-fi cordless Skype phones at http://www.google.com/products?q=wi-fi+skype&btnG=Search&show=dd.
Finally, I will mention the Panasonic KXWP1050 Wi-Fi Phone for Skype. It works well but is expensive and is sort of a “special purpose” cordless wi-fi phone for use with Skype. It serves a rather narrow audience, and I doubt if many people will require its unique features. However, if your needs are like mine, you might find the Panasonic KXWP1050 to be a perfect solution.
The Panasonic KXWP1050 is designed for the frequent traveler who often finds himself/herself in hotel rooms. It is especially useful for traveling internationally when cell phone roaming rates are so high as to make phone calls home very expensive. Placing international calls on Skype is always much cheaper than placing the same calls on a cell phone. The Panasonic KXWP1050 works best with a wired (not wi-fi) Internet connection in the hotel room. However, it also works with wi-fi wireless if there is no requirement to open a webpage and log in.
The Panasonic KXWP1050 includes both a wi-fi handheld telephone and a very small wi-fi and wired router, all zipped up in a small leather case that fits easily into the smallest of suitcases. You unpack everything, plug the in-room Internet cable into the Panasonic router, and then plug your laptop into the router or else connect the laptop via wi-fi. Then you boot the laptop and open a web browser. The hotel may require you to log onto the Internet connection in some manner, probably by entering a user name and password assigned to your room. You can then use the laptop in the normal manner. This can be useful if the in-room Internet cable is not in a convenient location. You can use the laptop's wi-fi networking and the Panasonic router while using the laptop on the room's desk, on the bed, or perhaps on a nearby balcony.
Other than the extended range, there is little advantage to using a laptop computer with the Panasonic KXWP1050. To be sure, it does add a great firewall and the ability to simultaneously connect multiple laptops to one wired connection, but those benefits by themselves do not seem to justify its price. However, when you add in the handheld wi-fi telephone, the advantages quickly mushroom. You now have a handheld phone that you can use to place inexpensive telephone calls over the Internet. It makes no difference if you are in a hotel room in Tucson, in Shanghai, or in Marrakech; the calls are always cheap. You do have to pay the hotel for the (one) in-room connection. However, you probably were going to pay for that just to check your e-mail. Adding in free or nearly free telephone calls on the same connection is simply an added bonus.
The Panasonic KXWP1050 is expensive with a retail price of about $300. However, you can purchase it from a number of retailers for $260 or so. You can find it at http://www.rootsbooks.com/shop.php?i=B000MTWVNS and at http://www.google.com/products?q=KXWP1050&btnG=Search+Products&show=dd. Again, I consider the Panasonic KXWP1050 to be a specialty item aimed for use by frequent travelers. For strictly in-home use, the Philips VOIP841 would appear to be a better choice.
All of these devices require a Skype account. The basic account is free and allows for unlimited free calls from one Skype-equipped computer to any other computer that is similarly configured. If you want to add in the ability to call standard telephones or to receive calls from standard telephones, this will require at least one of the extra-cost options. Unlimited outgoing calls to North American telephones costs $3.00 per month, much lower than any other telephone service I have found. For more information about Skype, go to http://www.skype.com.
Whatever device you choose, Skype is a great telephone service when you use a cordless phone for your connection. You do not need to leave the computer running all the time, and, even better, you can walk around the house while talking to your friends.