BOOT CAMP 329 (08/06/04)




Even with all the low cost International phone deals on offer calling abroad can still be expensive so you may be interested in way of using the Internet to talk to friends and relatives almost anywhere in the world for as long as you like for free, (well, almost free, you still need to pay for your ISP subscription).


Of course there is a catch and both parties must have a fairly recent PC with an Internet connection and the same Internet telephony software. It also works best when both of you have Windows XP and a broadband connection though the latter is by no means compulsory and a reasonably fast dial-up connection (33kbs or better) on one or both PCs will still work.


Using the Internet for telephone calls is known as VOIP or Voice Over Internet Protocol and in this week’s Boot Camp we’re going to be taking a close look at a free ‘personal’ PC-to-PC Internet phone system. There are also plenty of subscription-based VOIP services, and these often have extra features, including the facility to make calls from a PC to a landline or mobile phone. The free system we’re featuring can’t do this yet but it is incredibly easy to set up, sound quality is excellent, up to five users can be connected together at the same time and calls are encrypted, so it is very secure.


VOIP is not a new idea and a plethora of standards and systems have been developed over the past few years. It’s big business and many large corporations now use it instead of the conventional telephone network or PSTN for internal and external communications and over computer networks but it has had a chequered history in the consumer market.


That is now changing and Internet telephony is being given a welcome boost by the growth of wireless networking and Wi-Fi ‘hotspots’, allowing laptop users to make international phone calls on the move, from cafes, airport lounges and hotel rooms.


So how does it work and what’s involved? The basic premise is simple. VOIP software converts analogue voice signals from a microphone into digital data, which is then turned into data ‘packets’ that are sent over the Internet in exactly the same way as web pages and email messages. At the receiving end the data packets are collected, converted back into audio and piped through the PC’s speakers, but early systems were slow and sound quality was poor.


This is due to the way data packets are chopped up and routed around the net. Speech was often broken or there were unacceptably long delays as the data packets were scrambled and then reassembled. However, faster links and improvements in data processing and compression have enabled more information to be squeezed into each packet so that on the latest systems the effects of lost, slow or misrouted data is now much less noticeable. 


One of the fastest growing systems is Skype (, it is free and uses a variation of the ‘Peer to Peer’ (P2P) file sharing system that has proven so popular for distributing music over the Internet. This technique has a number of technical advantages and it eliminates the need for a centralised exchange or directory system.


If you want to give it a try before you begin make sure that you have a microphone connected to your PC and that it’s not muted or the level is set too low; see Tip of the Week. To avoid problems with feedback, and to keep your calls private it is worth investing in a microphone headset, they cost around £5.00 from PC suppliers.  


To install Skype go to the web site and click on the Download Now button and follow the prompts. When the program loads for the first time you will be asked to create a new account and enter some basic details, including a username, password, your email address and some personal details. This last step is optional; callers may view your information, so enter as much or as little as you deem appropriate. You will be asked if you want Skype to start with Windows and be ready to accept incoming calls. Again this is optional, you can just easily start the program manually from a desktop or Quick Launch icon at a pre-arranged time, or in response to an email from the person you wish to talk to.


Skype claims that it works through firewalls and routers without any further configuration though in practice we found some programs may flag up a warning or block it, so you may have to temporarily disable your firewall, or confirm that Skype is allowed to access your Internet connection. 


It is very easy to use, when Skype is running if someone calls you, your PC makes a ringing sound, a dialogue box appears displaying the caller’s username and it is up to you to answer the call by clicking on the green phone icon. If you want to call someone just check your Contacts list to see if they are currently on line, double click their entry and their PC will ring to let them know you are calling.


Give it a try but be quick, if it proves successful you can bet it won’t be free for much longer…


Next week – Top Tips part 1 -- Email





Program that monitors your Internet connection, preventing unauthorised outgoing connections and hackers trying to gain access to files on your PC



Networking configuration where data is routed by the PCs connected to the network, rather than by a central server



Public Switched Telephone Network – conventional telephone system, operated by BT etc.




To check that your microphone is working go to Start > Programs > Accessories > Entertainment and click Sound Recorder. Click the Record button and whistle or speak into the microphone and see if the ‘oscilloscope’ display reacts. Click Stop and play back the recording to confirm all is well. If it doesn’t work double click the loudspeaker icon in the System Tray (next to the clock), a microphone level slider should be displayed; set it halfway and make ‘Mute’ isn’t checked. If you can’t see the Microphone slider select Options > Properties and click the check box next to Microphone on the list of ‘Controls’.

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