Net Calls Get A Better Hearing

Two new products can turn your laptop into a high-quality speakerphone


Skype (EBAY ), the Internet-based phone service, was created for consumers, not business folk. But it has been winning a big following in the business community, mainly because executives long for an alternative to paying extortionate international tariffs. After the initial sense of awe wears off, however, many people find that a laptop is a clumsy substitute for a phone.

Two new products from teleconferencing leaders Polycom (PLCM ) and ClearOne Communications (CLRO ) can turn your computer into a high-quality speakerphone, which goes at least partway to solving the problem.

Computer-to-computer Skype calls are free, but they work only if the recipient is sitting by a PC with the Skype software running. A service called SkypeOut lets you use your laptop to dial any phone in the world for mere pennies a minute. That's obviously a big improvement over paying $1 per minute from a cell phone, including international roaming charges. Hotel surcharges can drive up the cost on international calls made from room phones even higher.

But cheap as it is to use Skype or other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, it's also a nuisance, mainly because the built-in microphone and speakers on most laptops produce dreadful sound quality. Theoretically, you can address this through the wonders of wireless: a Bluetooth headset with a Bluetooth-equipped laptop. Unfortunately, the Windows setup is daunting. And the corded headset that you use with your cell phone has a plug that is incompatible with laptops' audio jacks.

In many situations, a quality speakerphone provides an attractive alternative. The basic designs of the ClearOne Chat 50 ($149) and the Polycom Communicator ($129, available in June) are quite similar. Each is a small box that plugs into a laptop with a USB cable. And each contains the same sort of sound-processing circuitry that ClearOne and Polycom use in their conference room products. These allow the portable versions to function as "full-duplex" speakerphones, meaning that parties on both ends can talk at once, with very good audio quality.

THERE IS ONE DESIGN DISTINCTION between the two systems that really makes a difference. The Polycom is optimized to make Skype calls, while the ClearOne goes for greater versatility. I was impressed with Polycom's clever, compact design. A flap on the back pulls out to form a prop that positions it on a desktop. When closed, the flap covers a storage compartment for the USB cable. There are five buttons on the front: three to control volume and mute functions, a fourth to launch the Skype program on your PC, and a fifth to actually initiate a Skype call.

These buttons add a lot of convenience when you are using Skype, and they don't really limit your options. Your computer sees the Polycom Communicator as a microphone and speaker, so if you work for a company that frowns on Skype for security reasons you can use the device with any number of alternative PC-based solutions, such as the Cisco IP Softphone. On a recent business trip to Europe, I used the Communicator both for Skype calls to the U.S., for which I paid 0.017 euros, or a bit over 2 cents a minute, and as a microphone to record my weekly podcast.

The ClearOne Chat 50 also served me very well. It lacks Skype integration, so you lose a little convenience. But you gain the ability to use it as a speakerphone for your wireless handset, or even as a speaker for an iPod or other music player. It works with any handset that takes a standard 2.5 mm round plug, and it is much better than the speakerphone function built in to most handsets. The catch is that the audio cable, unlike USB, doesn't provide power, so you have to use an awkward external adaptor. And while the sound quality is quite good, there's only one speaker, so the output is mono, not stereo.

I found both systems very handy. Unless you need the extra flexibility offered by ClearOne, however, the Polycom's clean, compact design and lower price make it a bit more attractive, especially if you are planning to use it with Skype.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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