Like any telephone lover, I want crystal-clear reception and complete conversations -- without the annoying echoes, dropped sentences, or abrupt terminations that have plagued Web-based phones in the past. Internet Telephone from Callserve Communications seems to have circumvented such snags -- and it delivers pretty impressive call quality over a broadband connection.
You prepay for talk time by purchasing units from the U.K.-based service. I started with 2000 units (which cost roughly $31 -- the price fluctuates based on exchange rates). Those 2000 units can get you more than 600 minutes of talk time using your PC, depending on how and where you call. If you call outside the United States, connections to cell phones cost more than those to landlines. For example, you pay 3 units (about 5 cents) per minute to Italy or the United Kingdom, but calls to cell phones in the two countries cost 33 cents and 36 cents per minute, respectively.
After downloading the service's free software, you plug a microphone into your PC, type your number into the Internet Phone app, click the "place call" icon, and start yakking. The software also keeps track of how and where you're calling.
I tested the service nationally and overseas by using standard PC headset microphones as well as Callserve's $50 USB Internet Handset and its $13 Analog Internet Handset. The quality wasn't as good when I used a USB port. Unfortunately, getting the sound fine-tuned was time-consuming. Initially, I had no problem hearing people, but to at least one listener, I sounded like a distressed fax machine. To change that, I had to futz a bit with volume control and microphone settings. You may use the software to adjust the sound settings, to redial, and to access your call log by clicking the virtual phone's buttons (by the time you read this, the software should also offer a phone book feature).
Anyone who calls landlines abroad regularly can save on long-distance charges by using Callserve's Internet Telephone. But you have to enjoy being online and perched near your PC to use it. By Aoife McEvoy