Computer lets you call for free

November 02, 1998|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Over the last few months, there's been a lot of talk about companies offering cheap long-distance phone calls that travel over the Internet. But chances are good that you can use your computer right now to make the cheapest long-distance calls of all - free ones.

All it takes is an Internet account and a PC with a sound card - standard equipment on most computers sold over the last few years. The software to make it happen is probably sitting unused on your hard disk. If you're willing to do a little geeking around to set things up, you can call friends or relatives with similar setups any time they're on line, anywhere in the world.

Assuming you have the hardware you need (more about that later), the trick is finding the software. Most installations of Microsoft Internet Explorer also come with a program called NetMeeting, which you'll find by clicking the Internet Explorer program group on your Windows 95/98 Start Menu. Full installations of Netscape Communicator include a program called Conference, which can be found by running the Web browser and clicking on the Communicator menu at the top of your screen.

If you don't have the software, you can download it free from the Microsoft or Netscape Web sites. Both of these excellent programs allow you to chat by voice or by typing messages into a chat window. They'll also allow you to set up a "whiteboard," a sort of collaborative doodling pad with text and drawing features.

NetMeeting pushes the envelope further by supporting videoconferencing if you and the person on the other end have cameras hooked to your PCs. It also has an amazing feature called application sharing which allows both parties to work on a word processing or spreadsheet document at the same time.

I tried out NetMeeting and Conference with my older son, who's away at college. We found NetMeeting to be more powerful (we loved the collaboration tool), but we frequently found it easier to make a connection using Netscape Conference. If you're mainly interested in making voice calls or chatting, either one will do.

Both programs will work with the microphone and speaker that came with your computer, but not very well. Before you start, invest 20 bucks in a headset microphone, which has jacks that plug into the speaker and microphone ports of your sound card. These gadgets provide better voice quality than the cheap microphones that come with most systems. They also eliminate background noise and feedback - a hum generated when a microphone picks up noise from your speakers.

When you start up the first time, both programs will run you through an audio check to adjust your microphone level. Then you'll register with a server - an Internet computer that lets other callers connect with you and, if you like, puts your name in a directory that enables other people find you.

The folks you want to call must have compatible software running and go through the same registration process. This takes some pre-arrangement, and it's one reason why this kind of communication won't replace the telephone. But if you know when your friends or relatives are likely to be online, or make a date to talk at a certain hour, it works just fine.

Once you're connected to the server, you can call people by selecting their names from a directory or using their e-mail addresses as an identifier. They'll see a screen pop up informing them that there's a call coming in, and a mouse click later, you're chatting away.

How well all this works depends on the quality of your sound card, your phone lines, the speed of your Internet service provider and traffic on the Internet. At best, it's almost as good as talking on a phone. At worst, you'll hear nothing but garble on the other end. The nice thing is that you can always fall back to keyboard chat, which almost always functions well.

If you're using NetMeeting and have a video camera (such as Logitech's QuickCam), you can try your hand at videoconferencing, but don't expect too much. Even with a fast Internet connection, the video is jerky and sound synchronization is poor. Unless you enjoy tinkering, you'll do better sticking with voice.

At the moment, NetMeeting and Conference only work with accounts provided by standard Internet service providers, which means you can't use them with America Online or other proprietary services.

If you're primarily interested in keyboard chat, you'll find it much easier to make connections with a program like ICQ (a phenomenally popular application for general Net use) or AOL's Instant Messenger, which lets AOL subscribers communicate directly with outside Internet users.

To get Microsoft NetMeeting, surf to For Netscape Conference, point your browser to You can get AOL Instant Messenger from Netscape or at ICQ is available at

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Pub Date: 11/02/98

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