Imagine dumping your long-distance telephone provider because now your Maccan make all your long-distance calls.
Thanks to Nikotel Inc., Mac owners running OS X canuse their computers' Internet connection to make long-distance telephone callsfor mere pennies, with no extra fees or plans required.
Nikotel is just one of dozens of companies exploiting a technology calledVoice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, which is a fancy term for the processof converting the human voice to data just like e-mail or Web pages fortransport over the Internet.
Nikotel, based in San Diego, Calif., is unusual among VoIP providers in that it offers a Mac version ofits software as well as a Windows version.
VoIP is similar to Apple Computer Inc.'s own iChatAV, which uses some of the sameprotocols as VoIP services, but with some critical differences.
Where iChatAV excels is in very high-quality video chat, but users onlycan communicate with people who themselves are Mac users on OS X with abroadband Internet connection -- a rarefied group.
VoIP, while experiencing several major drawbacks, including erraticquality, and overly technical setup issues,has one huge advantage over iChatAV: the ability to call "regular" phones,be they landlines or cellular telephones.
Yet VoIP's lingering problems have prevented it from catching on with thegeneral population, despite it being available for several years and -- for PC-to-PC connections -- being free.
One major issue that has been mostly resolved, however, is the choppy, static-riddensound quality of VoIP conversations. Today's VoIP is nearly as clear as alandline conversation, and better than some cell-phone connections.
VoIP users also once shared iChatAV's limitation of only being able toconnect with others who happened to be online and using the same software.Many VoIP providers still provide free connections within their network, butnow allow calls to anyone anywhere for flat rates below those of most long-distance providers, usually just a few cents a minute.
Still, the VoIP services have not resolved the annoying delays and echoesin PC-to-PC conversations.
And the technology often requires the tweaking of arcane network andfirewall settings. Though Nikotel's software has automated much of this,most users will balk at monkeying with the port settings on their firewall -- and that's assuming they can find the settings.
The complete replacement of your regular phone service remains impracticalbecause with VoIP you lose such features as the ability to call 911. Inaddition, VoIP providers usually treat local calls just like long-distancecalls; that is, you're charged by the minute.
Even at dirt-cheap rates likeNikotel's 3 cents per minute, that can add up, particularly with ateen-ager in the house.
Furthermore, with most VoIP services you cannot receive calls fromlandlines; you only can make them. Nikotel says it plans to provide itssubscribers with a number that may be reached from standard phones "soon" for $6.99 a month.
After three months of testing Nikotel's products with the hope ofjettisoning my long-distance service, the results are mixed.
The first lesson is that Nikotel's free software only gets you so far. Youmay make calls, but only to people within Nikotel¹s network (although youcan communicate with people using the Windows version of Nikotel's softwareas well as those using the Mac version.).
To get the really good stuff -- the ability to call any phone anywhere , for instance -- youmust sign up for a Nikotel account. There's no monthly fee, but you do need to pre-pay at least $15.
Besides testing the OS X software, I popped $100 into my prepaidaccount to qualify for a free Internet phone from Nikotel. At 3 cents perminute, it could be quite some time before my account needs to be"recharged," as Nikotel puts it.
The phone looks like a regular landline telephone, except it has an Ethernetport versus a standard RJ-11 telephone jack. The phone also requires abroadband Internet connection, so you'll probably want to use a router -- anetwork device that allows you to share a broadband connection with severaldevices -- unless you enjoy unplugging your Mac from the Internet each timeyou want to make a call.
Should you stick with just the Mac software, you'll need a microphone; fortunately, the Nikotel software doesn't seem fussy about whatkind. I used one that came with Creative Technology Inc.'s SoundBlaster for Macsound card, connected to my G4 tower via a Griffin iMic adapter.
Nikotel's OS X software worked fine with my old Asante router but refused towork properly with a newer Siemens SpeedStream router, cutting off callsshortly after connecting. Nikotel's Web site lists several approvedrouters, including Apple's Airport models, as well as several incompatibleones. So buyer beware.
In addition to a slight delay in the conversation, one persistent problemwith the Nikotel service was that during calls longer than 5 to 10 minutesthe person on the other end suddenly could no longer hear me, even though Icould hear them.
While the Internet phone (which, by the way, is not Mac-specific) had a soundquality rivaling that of a landline, it, too, suffered from the one-sidedcutoff problem.
That brings us to Nikotel's tech support, which was substandard. For one thing, they've no tech support phone number, even for a fee. You must e-mail them and wait for a reply.
Nikotel responded to my e-mail six days later with a recommendation toadjust a setting that I already had changed and by questioning the veracity ofmy description of the problem.
Were it not for its flaws, Nikotel's service would be an excellentalternative to standard long distance. Its Mac OS X software is built onJava, looks good and is easy to use.
Though it still is not quite ready for the general public, as VoIP continuesto improve, it represents a serious threat to long-distance telephoneproviders. If you'd like a glimpse into the future, download Nikotel'ssoftware for the Mac and check it out.
Speaking of technology with a great future, I tested Griffin's iTrip devicefor Apple's iPod on a 12-hour drive from Atlanta to Baltimore last weekend.
The $35 iTrip is an FM transmitter that plugs into the iPod's headphoneport. An installer on the included CD-ROM loads a playlist of every FMfrequency onto your iPod.
After you've found a clean frequency (that is, one with no stationbroadcasting, which is no easy trick in a major metropolitan area), you "tune" theiPod to that frequency using the playlist. Once you've set it up you canselect your music normally; your car radio simply picks up the iTrip'stransmission.
While the quality is not as good as a CD -- the music has the slightly hollowsound of a regular radio broadcast and sometimes you can hear someinteference in the background -- it should be good enough for all butaudiophiles.
The next step is to somehow integrate an iPod with the car's audio controls,so it's easier to access while driving. The display screen is particularlyhard to read in bright sunlight while maneuvering in heavy interstatetraffic. (No, the setup shown in Volkswagen with the iPod located on the farside of the stick shift is not a good solution.).
As a fan of the CD-changer-in-the-trunk scheme of listening to music in thecar, I'm intrigued by the prospect of transferring all my favorite music toa car-mounted, iTrip-enhanced iPod and leave behind the hassle of loadingand unloading CDs in the changer.
The iTrip device reinforces the argument some have made that someday musicwill be all digital, that people will stop buying tapes and CDs in favor ofdigital versions.