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Product test: Internet Telephone Wizard
(IDG) -- Internet telephony promises a cheap alternative to traditional long-distance calling: Just as you can limit spending on postage by using e-mail, you can avoid long-distance telephone charges by routing calls over the Net. Actiontec's Internet Telephone Wizard is a nifty new product that connects your telephone handset to the Net. With it, you can make free long-distance calls within the United States and Canada, and to selected countries (including much of Europe). The Internet Telephone Wizard mimics a regular call's look, feel, and sound--when everything works.
I tested a $100, Universal Serial Bus version of the device (it also comes in an $80, internal PCI card version), and got mixed results. The green-and-gray box resembles an external modem, with modular jacks to connect an analog phone line and a standard telephone handset. You tap the phone's pound key twice to toggle between the Internet and analog modes. The Internet Phone Wizard sends calls through one of several Internet telephony service providers, which patch Internet calls through to anyone with a standard telephone connection. Currently the Internet Phone Wizard works with five ITSPs, but the bundled Actiontec software steers you toward the services of Deltathree.com.
The USB version of Internet Phone Wizard works with all versions of Windows 98; the PCI version will also work with Windows 95. Actiontec is currently working on support for Windows 2000 and Windows ME. The company is also considering supporting the Mac OS, but not Windows NT or Linux.
Setup was easy on my Pentium III-450 system, which uses Windows 98 SE and has 128MB of RAM. Placing a call was a bit more of a trick. Although this product is designed to connect a telephone handset to your computer, the software chose my computer's microphone and speakers as the default input and output devices. I had to futz with the settings to convince the software that yes, I did want to use my telephone.
When I tried calling my mother a few times, the connection speed of my US Robotics 56-kilobits-per-second Windows modem was inexplicably halved, even after I tried a replacement unit that Actiontec provided. With my first calls using the replacement, the phone rang and I heard Mom answer, but she couldn't hear me. After several tries, we finally made some contact. Mom claims that I don't always hear what she says. This time, she was right: The sound was occasionally choppy, and sentences were often broken off. Later, however, I called a friend from a digital subscriber line connection in the PC World Test Center and got surprisingly good results.
Actiontec representatives acknowledge that the connection quality can be sketchy. One reason, they said, is that most ITSPs have begun providing free service, and their networks have been overwhelmed by customer demand. Actiontec, which now supports five ITSPs, intends to add more providers to the roster. (ITSPs Net2Phone and Media Ring also have paid, ad-free options, ranging from 1 to 4 cents per minute for calls within the U.S., but the Internet Phone Wizard doesn't support them.)
As with any free service, you'll have to put up with advertising--and surrender a load of demographic data when you register--to get the goods. The Actiontec control panel pops up with banner ads that help underwrite Deltathree.com's costs. Internet calling is an attractive option, especially for broadband subscribers, but regular analog phone connections are still far more reliable and of higher quality.
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