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Into the VoIP

Imagine dumping your long-distance telephone provider because now your Mac can make all your long-distance calls.

Thanks to Nikotel Inc., Mac owners running OS X can use their computers' Internet connection to make long-distance telephone calls for mere pennies, with no extra fees or plans required.

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Nikotel is just one of dozens of companies exploiting a technology called Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, which is a fancy term for the process of converting the human voice to data just like e-mail or Web pages for transport over the Internet.

Nikotel, based in

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San Diego
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, Calif., is unusual among VoIP providers in that it offers a Mac version of its software as well as a Windows version.

VoIP is similar to

Apple Computer Inc.

's own iChatAV, which uses some of the same protocols as VoIP services, but with some critical differences.

Where iChatAV excels is in very high-quality video chat, but users only can communicate with people who themselves are Mac users on OS X with a broadband Internet connection -- a rarefied group.

VoIP, while experiencing several major drawbacks, including erratic quality, 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 the general population, despite it being available for several years and -- for PC-to-PC connections -- being free.

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One major issue that has been mostly resolved, however, is the choppy, static-ridden sound quality of VoIP conversations. Today's VoIP is nearly as clear as a landline conversation, and better than some cell-phone connections.

VoIP users also once shared iChatAV's limitation of only being able to connect with others who happened to be online and using the same software. Many VoIP providers still provide free connections within their network, but now 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 echoes in PC-to-PC conversations.

And the technology often requires the tweaking of arcane network and firewall 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 impractical because with VoIP you lose such features as the ability to call 911. In addition, VoIP providers usually treat local calls just like long-distance calls; that is, you're charged by the minute.

Even at dirt-cheap rates like Nikotel's 3 cents per minute, that can add up, particularly with a teen-ager in the house.

Furthermore, with most VoIP services you cannot receive calls from landlines; you only can make them. Nikotel says it plans to provide its subscribers 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 of jettisoning my long-distance service, the results are mixed.

The first lesson is that Nikotel's free software only gets you so far. You may make calls, but only to people within Nikotel¹s network (although you can communicate with people using the Windows version of Nikotel's software as well as those using the Mac version.).

To get the really good stuff -- the ability to call any phone anywhere , for instance -- you must 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 prepaid account to qualify for a free Internet phone from Nikotel. At 3 cents per minute, 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 Ethernet port versus a standard RJ-11 telephone jack. The phone also requires a broadband Internet connection, so you'll probably want to use a router -- a network device that allows you to share a broadband connection with several devices -- unless you enjoy unplugging your Mac from the Internet each time you 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 what kind. I used one that came with

Creative Technology

Inc.'s SoundBlaster for Mac sound 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 to work properly with a newer

Siemens

SpeedStream router, cutting off calls shortly after connecting. Nikotel's Web site lists several approved routers, including Apple's Airport models, as well as several incompatible ones. So buyer beware.

In addition to a slight delay in the conversation, one persistent problem with the Nikotel service was that during calls longer than 5 to 10 minutes the person on the other end suddenly could no longer hear me, even though I could hear them.

While the Internet phone (which, by the way, is not Mac-specific) had a sound quality rivaling that of a landline, it, too, suffered from the one-sided cutoff 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 to adjust a setting that I already had changed and by questioning the veracity of my description of the problem.

Were it not for its flaws, Nikotel's service would be an excellent alternative to standard long distance. Its Mac OS X software is built on Java, looks good and is easy to use.

Though it still is not quite ready for the general public, as VoIP continues to improve, it represents a serious threat to long-distance telephone providers. If you'd like a glimpse into the future, download Nikotel's software for the Mac and check it out.

***

Speaking of technology with a great future, I tested Griffin's iTrip device for 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 headphone port. An installer on the included CD-ROM loads a playlist of every FM frequency onto your iPod.

After you've found a clean frequency (that is, one with no station broadcasting, which is no easy trick in a major metropolitan area), you "tune" the iPod to that frequency using the playlist. Once you've set it up you can select your music normally; your car radio simply picks up the iTrip's transmission.

While the quality is not as good as a CD -- the music has the slightly hollow sound of a regular radio broadcast and sometimes you can hear some inteference in the background -- it should be good enough for all but audiophiles.

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 particularly hard to read in bright sunlight while maneuvering in heavy interstate traffic. (No, the setup shown in

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Volkswagen
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with the iPod located on the far side of the stick shift is not a good solution.).

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As a fan of the CD-changer-in-the-trunk scheme of listening to music in the car, I'm intrigued by the prospect of transferring all my favorite music to a car-mounted, iTrip-enhanced iPod and leave behind the hassle of loading and unloading CDs in the changer.

The iTrip device reinforces the argument some have made that someday music will be all digital, that people will stop buying tapes and CDs in favor of digital versions.

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