VoIP alternatives trim long-distance bills

By Scott Dunn

Our Dec. 13, 2007, issue explained how a VoIP device called MagicJack, which charges only $20 USD per year for unlimited calls from anywhere in the world to U.S. and Canada phones, might make big long-distance bills a thing of the past.

As a result, many of our readers pointed out other innovative Internet products and services to help cut your phone bill down to size.

Numerous readers wrote in to make us aware of their own preferred Voice over Internet Protocol systems for lowering their phone bills. We haven’t tested all of the following services or products, so do your homework before diving in:

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Jajah. John Cossins and many others wrote to tell us how pleased they were with the service offered by Jajah. Unlike many VoIP services, Jajah doesn’t require any installable software or hardware (other than an ordinary telephone). You go to the Web site and enter your phone number and the number you wish to call. Jajah does the rest by calling you and then connecting you with your party. Jajah also offers a service called Jajah Direct, which doesn’t even require an Internet connection. You simply call a local phone number and provide the destination number. Readers report good voice quality and low per-minute rates, starting at 2.9 cents per minute, which are listed at the Jajah site. Calls between any two Jajah customers are free.

Vyke and VoipCheap. Reader Alf Manders wrote to tell us about Vyke, and Leon Fiss wanted to inform us of VoipCheap. Both services are similar to Skype in that they require you to download and install software. You’ll need a microphone and speakers on your computer if you don’t have a headset.

ChatterBug. Kurt Kincel prefers the ChatterBug hardware device, which requires no computer or Internet connection. You simply connect the $25 USD device between your phone and wall jack and pay $10 a month for long-distance calls. WSN editorial director Brian Livingston reviewed the ChatterBug in a Feb. 21, 2006, Executive Tech column.

GrandCentral. A reader named Roger is excited about the features offered by GrandCentral, a service that was recently acquired by Google. Unlike the other VoIP services mentioned above, GrandCentral is not designed to lower your long distance bills. Instead, it aims to unite all your phones under a single number that GrandCentral provides. Incoming calls are routed to your other numbers or to your voice mail. The service can also unite all your voice mails in one place, which you can manage from the Web site. You can screen calls, block unwanted calls, dial from an online address book, record and play back calls, and more. The service is currently free.

Skype. Finally, a few readers had comments on Skype-related hardware. Richard Sale is pleased with uConnect, a $60 USB device that lets you make Skype or landline calls from an analog phone that you plug into the device. Dave Eisenbraun recommends the Philips VOIP841, a $130 list ($110 street) cordless hybrid Skype and landline phone, which eliminates the need for a computer. Leon Sizemore and others wrote to point out that Skype does not require a special headset if your computer has speakers and a mic.

MagicJack may not work on restricted systems

Regarding the Dec. 13, 2007, article, reader Paul Wrenn asks about my statement that MagicJack installs no software on the host computer. Paul cites an eWeek article stating that the MagicJack software “does not run directly from the device,” but “fully installs on the Windows system.”

To test this, I used the freeware product TinyWatcher to scan a Windows XP system before and connecting MagicJack. The TinyWatcher scan indicated that, contrary to prior statements by a MagicJack representative, MagicJack does add two files to the Windows System32 folder (usbaudio.sys and utscsci.exe). It also adds four entries to the Windows Registry.

Although these changes are minimal compared to some other VoIP programs, they nevertheless suggest that MagicJack may not work on a computer whose policies prohibit any software installation.

Patch resolves ADS issue on Windows Home Server

Our Dec. 6 issue described how to make files invisible to Windows Explorer and most other Windows tools by using alternate data streams (ADS), a feature of Microsoft’s NTFS file system. Our Known Issues column on Dec. 13 then pointed out that alternate data streams in an NTFS file can be corrupted if the file is copied to a shared folder on a system running Windows Home Server (WHS). Microsoft Knowledge Base article 943393 acknowledges the bug.

Computer engineer and system builder Philip Churchill writes with the good news that a patch is available for WHS:
  • “Just to let you know that the November 2007 update for WHS resolved this problem, as can be viewed in KB article 941914. The title is misleading, as it [the update] corrects seven problems with WHS, including the ADS problem. More info is also available at my blog.”
Thanks, Philip! KB article 943393 was edited by Microsoft on Dec. 28 to recommend the WHS update as a solution to the problem.

According to Philip’s blog entry, the fix was made available through Windows’ routine Automatic Updates process, so your WHS systems may have already been patched.

Readers Cossins, Manders, Fiss, Kincel, Roger, Sale, Eisenbraun, Sizemore, Wrenn, and Churchill will each receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of their choice for sending tips we printed. Send us your tips via the Windows Secrets contact page.

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