May 25, 2006

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Geek phone home
Call anyone in the US or Canada for free
By John ďjaQĒ Andrews† jandrews@hippopress.com

I was one of the last holdouts against making phone calls through my computer.

Not because I donít think itís a good idea or anything like that ó I just avoid using the phone whenever possible to begin with. You never know when your phone call is going to interrupt some crisis, argument or TV show, and who wants that on their conscience? If Iím already at a computer anyway, itís gonna be e-mail.

But Skype may have finally changed my mind. Used to be that Skype was free to use only for calling, well, other Skype users. Nothing really different from any number of voice chat applications. You could call to landline and mobile phones as well, but that cost you. Less than a phone line or long distance, sure, but it still cost you.

Not anymore. On May 15, Skype announced that all calls from its software to any phone number in the United States or Canada would be free until December 31, 2006.

Yeah, thatís right. Free. Gratis. All you need, rather than a $5 phone, is a modern computer, a broadband Internet connection and a headset with a microphone. Thatís progress.

But sure, you have that stuff already, it really is a bargain. Skype isnít guaranteeing that this service will be free forever, but it has committed to the end of this year. International calls are still not free, but still cheap.

Yes, ďCanadaĒ and ďinternational callsĒ are different. Donít yell at me, yell at Skype.

You can even buy a phone number so that anyone can call your Skype software. If youíre not online, voicemail picks it up.

With PC telephony, you can even record your phone calls (after getting permission from all parties, of course). It takes a bit of tomfoolery, but it can be done.

First, youíll need audio recording software. Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net) is free, open source, and pretty simple to use. Download that.

Then, youíll need to futz with your audio settings. In Windows, open the volume control by double-clicking the little speaker icon in the system tray of your task bar. Do that twice, in fact. (If itís not there, open Sounds and Audio Devices or Multimedia in your Control Panel and check the box that puts it there.) In the second volume control, go to Options -> Properties and select Recording. When you click OK, youíll now have one mixer for volume and one for recording.

The labels on each slider will vary depending on what sound card is in your computer, but bear with me. In Recording Control, select Mixer or Sound Mix or What You Hear or something like that ó probably the leftmost one. Itís the combination of all sound output sources on your PC. Move the slider down to the second tick or so. In Volume Control, unmute Microphone and slide Wave down to the third tick. You can experiment with exact settings for optimum sound levels later.

Now make your call using a headset, ask for permission and hit the record button in Audacity (the big red circle). Make sure the Microphone slider in the Volume Control is still unmuted; Skype may automatically mute it. Voila! Youíre General Michael Hayden!

Last week's column gave the wrong Web address for Microsoft's mapping site. The correct address is http://local.live.com.


Comments? Thoughts? Discuss these articles and more at hippoflea.com

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