Calls made online can be free-range


The problem with free calls over the Internet is that you have to be at your computer to make them.

But a new device, the VoSky Call Center ( allows you to make free Internet calls from any phone in your house.

It uses Skype, an online service based in Luxembourg that became an international phenomenon - leading to its acquisition last year by eBay for $2.6 billion - because it provides free computer-based calls around the world.

The VoSky Call Center is one of several away-from-the-computer Skype devices that have recently arrived on the market. Another one is the Linksys CIT200, which is a cordless Skype phone.

Using these phones doesn't mean the end of your long-distance bills. The calls are free only if the person on the other end is using Skype, too.

Also, the quality of Internet audio connections is highly variable. And there are inconveniences - for example, you can't use the VoSky or Linksys phone unless your computer is on.

But if you regularly use Skype, these devices can free you from the computer. And for international calls, the cost savings can outweigh the hassles.

VoSky, from Actiontec Electronics, is especially intriguing because of its ability to transform regular phones into Skypers.

The VoSky device, a little black box about the size of a detached answering machine, is easy to install.

Basically, the VoSky is connected via a USB port to a computer that has broadband access to the Internet. Another set of lines goes from the box to a phone. I hooked mine up to a base unit for the cordless phones in the house.

Some Windows-only software (VoSky doesn't work with Macs) is installed on the computer. And you assign a speed-dial code to everyone you regularly call on your Skype service.

You can assign codes to non-Skype phone numbers, too. They can be reached as SkypeOut calls, for which a fee is charged.

I first called Gennifer Weisenfeld, a Duke University art historian currently on a fellowship in London. She and her husband regularly use Skype to call home. Gennifer picked up the Internet call at her computer. I, however, was able to walk around my house as we talked, using my cordless phone.

The voice quality on the line was serviceable, but a big step down from the customary high quality of a Skype computer-to-computer call to London.

We hung up and Gennifer tried calling me using Skype. Usually, my computer would make a ringing noise to notify me I had a call coming in via the Internet.

But because I had set up VoSky to catch those calls, my phone rang in the usual way. VoSky even put her name, which it picked up from my Skype buddy list on the computer, on the phone's caller ID screen.

Calls can be made from outside telephones, including cell phones, that are routed to the home system and then via VoSky onto the Internet. But that setup is even more cumbersome.

If you do a lot of Skype calling and want to jump in as an early adopter, the price is about $70.

The CIT200 uses a small base station (about the size of a computer mouse) that plugs into a computer's USB port. It also comes with a charger for the phone.

Software installed on the PC (again, no Mac compatibility) transfers the Skype buddy list information from the computer to the phone where it shows up on a nicely lighted screen.

The phone buddy list, like the one on the computer, shows which members happen to be online. Making a call to one of them is as simple as highlighting them on the list and pressing the talk button.

Also, a regular number can be entered using the touchpad, and it will be made as a SkypeOut call.

The simplicity of the CIT200, which sells for about $110, was certainly welcome.

The call quality was about as good as when using the VoSky device.

Linksys says its phone can be used as much as 160 feet from the base station indoors, and more than 900 feet if used outdoors.

I found it to be better than that. During one call, I left my laptop with the base station attached in the kitchen and walked out of the house. I got nearly a block away before the call started to break up.

Another nice feature: a built-in speakerphone.

Put it all together, and I figured I could talk to friends in far-flung parts of the world, for free, while doing my gardening.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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