4 min read

Talk is cheap, and getting cheaper

We try a Wi-Fi phone and find it a good call

We’ve been using a new Skype WiFi phone from Netgear that’s just like a cell phone but cheaper to use.

If you’re in a location with good wireless Internet access, the calls are as clear as any landline phone. Joy called London and the conversation was “clear as a bell,” she says. The other good news is Internet calls are free or nearly so.

This Netgear Skype phone is one of several we’ve seen for making calls through the Internet. Setup is automatic. Once you’ve registered for a Skype account (Skype.com), you’re logged in automatically, as soon as you turn on the phone.

The phone sells for $170 (all dollar figures U.S.), after rebate, at NewEgg.com. Skype software is free and comes already installed on the phone. You can call landline or cell phones with a “Skype Out” account, and receive calls on your Skype phone with a “Skype In” account. International calls typically cost 2 to 3 cents a minute and are free to other Skype users.

Editor’s note: As we went to press Skype announced that while Skype-to-Skype calling will remain free, as of Jan. 31 it will institute a paid plan called Skype Unlimited. It will charge $29.95 for users to make an unlimited number of calls to any phone in Canada and the U.S. for 12 months. The fee will be only $14.95 for those who sign up before the plan starts.

A similar WiFI phone from Belkin is designed to work with “Boingo,” a wireless Internet service with 60,000 locations, including nearly every large hotel and airport.

You have to sign up with Boingo (Boingo.com), but it’s only $8 a month if you have this phone, which is $180 from Belkin.com/Skype. For that you get unlimited Internet phone service to anywhere in the world.

A major technological shift is in progress. Several years ago, traditional phone companies paid little attention to the growing competition from aggregators. These bought huge blocks of line time and resold phone services at big discounts. Everybody’s bill shrank. Now the sellers of cell phone services face the same horizon. Why pay high charges for each minute of call time and sign up for long-term contracts if you can take an Internet phone into a cafe or hotel and make calls for free?

Since most phone calls originate in cities and large towns, these tiny four-ounce phones are poised to use Wi-Fi — the short designation for wireless Internet service — as the new communications highway. Several city governments have said they would like to establish city-wide Wi-Fi for free. The expansion of free and ultra-low-cost Internet phone service appears inevitable. With it will come video along with voice.

The so-called “Internet 2” high-speed service now being used by many universities and other institutions transmits data at a stunning 100 gigabits a second. That’s fast enough to watch movies transmitted in real time and can easily handle simultaneous voice and video. Tens of thousands of students use it every day and will soon move on from college expecting similar service in their homes and jobs.

AH, THAT OLD GOLDEN SOFTWARE

We recently discovered a treasure trove of old software at VetusWare.com and it’s all free. They call it “Abandon Ware,” because the producers have either gone out of business or given up supporting it. Much of it is for DOS, though there are are quite a few programs designed to run on early versions of Windows.

Abandoned they may be, but there are some real jewels in here. We saw XyWrite, probably the best word processor ever made for desktop computers, and WordPerfect 5.1. This version was so stable and richly featured that it almost put the company out of business. After all, what can you sell to customers who already had the perfect product? We found AmiPro, dBaseIV, and Electronic Arts’ wonderful graphics program: “Deluxe Paint.”

VetusWare also has operating systems for download, so you can put together a computer loaded with some of the best software ever written. Bob is going to keep one old computer just to run MS-DOS, the Microsoft operating system that preceded Windows. The thing about DOS was that it was completely stable, and you only had to know half a dozen arcane computer commands to run it, but those proved to be too many for the market to tolerate.

INTERNUTS

— WorldStart.com will deliver free computer tips to your desktop either daily or weekly. For instance: You can open Windows’ Task Manager by right-clicking anywhere on the task bar (blue bar at the bottom of the screen) and see what’s running and what you might want to stop. If a menu on your screen freezes up, you can clear it with a right-click of the mouse anywhere on the desktop; select “refresh” from the little menu that comes up.

— Epocrates.com has detailed information on more than 3,000 drugs, their use, side effects and possible conflicts with other drugs. The Web site says that about 65 per cent of people who visit a doctor’s office leave with a prescription, and it is often a wrong one. That could well be; last year we saw the results of a study that found medical mistakes were the fastest-growing cause of death in America.

A MUSICAL EDUCATION

“Discover Bach” is a three-CD set for Windows. One of the disks has several musical games. You try to identify the instruments used in several compositions. Another CD is a documentary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s life; the third is a selection of his pieces as recorded by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The set is $50 at Amazon.com.

We spent some time with this set and thought it was good fun and instructive. As Beethoven said of Bach: “No brook, he, but an ocean,” making a pun of Bach’s name, which means “brook” in German, and referring to his vast output.

Copyright 2006 Universal Press Syndicate