Quality of Internet telephone improving

October 20, 1996


Internet telephony software is booming in popularity and more companies are getting into the field. Both Netscape and Microsoft have some sort of Web phone capacity built into their latest browsers, and there are a growing number of phone-only Web applications available.

The latest I've tested successfully is FreeTel 1.0 from FreeTel Communications. I used the beta version of the software some months ago, and while impressive, the audio quality was still something like AM radio with thunderstorms nearby -- audible, but not very pleasant.

FreeTel and other software vendors have created a niche market that's gotten lots of notice -- from both Internet users and telephone companies. But like its competitors, FreeTel has come a long way in a few months to upgrading and improving its product.

FreeTel's software is available from their Web site at http://www.freetel.com/, and unlike some other Web phone software, isn't crippled and has no expiration date; FreeTel is advertiser supported. FreeTel 1.0 is a significant improvement over the beta version I first tested. The audio quality is much improved (though users of 14.4k modems will see less of an improvement). The quality at 28.8k isn't bad; in fact, I can remember when it wasn't uncommon for telephone connections to sound worse.

FreeTel uses an IRC-like server for its communications. When you start the software, it connects to one of its servers. From there, a directory lists all the other FreeTel users connected at that time.

And there are plenty.

From the directory, you can scroll through hundreds of users from around the world. I've chatted with high school students in Malaysia, a college student in Egypt, numerous European and users in North and South America. And the connections are usually very, very good. Sometimes the audio gets a little clipped when chatting with someone across the globe, but it still remains clearly understandable.

In fact, you can test your foreign language skills out using FreeTel, since many users from abroad don't know much English.
I have been an amateur radio operator (``ham'' operator) for about 10 years, and via radio, talked around the globe to other hams. With FreeTel, I can avoid the static and erratic ionospheric conditions and make contacts with people all over the world -- with only my computer and microphone.

Besides the audio chats, you can also have live keyboard-to-keyboard chats, which is a handy feature for times when language or accents become a barrier. Many FreeTel users prefer using text-only, so a multimedia PC or always required.

To run FreeTel, you need to run Windows 3.1, Windows 95 or Windows for Workgroups (Windows NT and Macintosh versions will be available soon). You also need a 486/33 or faster computer (a faster PC provides better sound quality). At least 4 MB of RAM is recommended; more if you are using Windows 95 or running Netscape at the same time. Approximately 1 MB of hard disk space is required. A 14.4k modem connection to the Internet is needed; a faster connection also provides superior audio quality.

You'll also need a sound card, speakers and a microphone, which nearly all multimedia-equipped computers have as standard equipment.

FreeTel 1.0 is free for downloading; however, you can upgrade the software to activate some advanced features. For $29.95, you can upgrade to FreeTel plus, and for $39.95, FreeTel Personal Edition, which lets the user disable the advertising window.

OTHER OPTIONS. FreeTel isn't the only Web phone software package -- there are many out available for downloading.
C|Net Central recently reviewed Web phone software, and you may want to stop there for an overview of what's available. Visit C|Net's Web site at http://www.cnet.com/

And I must agree with C|Net's conclusion: Web phones won't prompt you to throw out your wired telephone equipment -- yet.

BIOGRAPHY. If you're a fan of the A&E television series ``Biography,'' you owe it to yourself to visit the program's site on the World Wide Web at http://www.biography.com.

The opening page contains graphical links to the site's content, and I'm not sure I've seen so many animated gifs on one page. But fear not, they create a very effective welcome, and the page loads quickly.As you might expect, you can browse the month's schedule for ``Biography'' programs and read a synopsis of each day's programming. A video clip is available that previews the current day's program, a very nice touch. A detailed and well-written summary is also available to supplement the video clip.
But there's more; you can join in on-line discussion on a wide variety of topics (usually connected to a recent program subject), purchase videotape copies of the programs while on line, try your hand at trivia and my favorite -- browse their 15,000 biographical entries.

There's a section for kids as well; ``Biography'' programming for Saturdays offers profiles of historical figures, and the section devoted to kids mirrors the programming. An on-line anagram challenge can test the analytical skills of minds both young and old.

Overall, the site is worth a visit -- if nothing else you can determine if you need to buy a video cassette and have your VCR programmed for an upcoming program of interest.

Comments and questions about this column may be sent to jbrooks@myoldkentuckyhome.com, or visit www.myoldkentuckyhome.com on the World Wide Web.

| HOME |