Phone home for free

Don’t let the cost of long-distance calls keep you from calling home if you and your partner are Internet-savvy. With the right software and a little preparation, you won’t have to settle for e-mail when you’d rather have a live conversation with a loved one.

All you need to start dialing is Internet access, an account with an Internet phone service and Web phone software. Your computer’s speakers and microphone serve as the handset. If you lack a microphone, a basic one for less than $25 will do a fair job. Or you can also plug a headset unit into the in/out jack on your sound card at the rear of your computer. Here’s what you need to know before you throw away your calling card.

Under the hood.
Internet phones work by using voice-over Internet protocol technology, which processes data signals from the Internet into analog signals used by the phone company. The process allows you to make phone calls from the Internet to any analog phone in the world, excluding, in some cases, extensions and pagers.

Is it really free?
Services such as Net2Phone allow you to make PC-to-PC calls for free, if the computer you’re calling has the same software you do. Calling a regular phone will usually incur a service fee, typically 1 to 3 cents per minute for domestic calls and up to 10 cents per minute for international calls, but there are no long-distance fees.

Getting started.
Once you set up an account, you can download the software. Some programs will also allow video calls, which require Web cams.

Sound quality.
If you use a dial-up modem, conversation can be a bit choppy. You may lose entire words or phrases. Talking slowly can alleviate some problems. Talking at night, when the lines are not as congested, works best.

Most programs come with a built-in phone book for frequently used numbers and can keep up with recent numbers you’ve dialed. Some programs also have built-in white pages and search functions.

Net2Phone is included in AOL’s Netscape 6.0 browser and as a part of the Yahoo! People Search section. MSN’s new instant messenger also includes Net2Phone services and will soon offer free domestic calls.

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If you prefer talking with your tongue instead of your fingers, and you don’t mind dealing with occasional problematic connections, an Internet phone can provide you with a cheap, innovative way to stay in touch on the road.

Getting connected Offers popular MediaRing phone software. PC-to-phone calls are discounted through Valuefone prepaid service. Free PC-to-PC conference calls. Offers free unlimited domestic PC-to-phone connections. Users are subjected to constant banner ads. Charges 3.9 cents per minute for domestic PC-to-phone calls. Includes voice e-mail and an Internet fax feature. $15 a month for unlimited PC-to-phone calls. Includes a voice-mail

Do you have questions about using computers? Ideas for this column?
Call Max Heine at (800) 633-5953, ext. 1038.