PhoneJack shows upside of full-duplex call quality over Internet

Pros and cons:
+Free phone calls with good to excellent sound quality
– Works with most Internet telephony software and PBXes
– Inherent delays from nature of Internet


Real-life requirements:
Open half-height ISA slot, Win95, 16M RAM, CD-ROM drive, 2M free on hard drive, telephone
handset or speaker and microphone.


Free Internet telephone calls until now have had several downsides: slow response,
spotty quality and style akin to a ham radio session.


Most of the sound problems are not the fault of the Internet but rather of PC sound
cards unsuited for such tasks.


Now the $200 Internet PhoneJack ISA board from Quicknet Technologies Inc. can optimize
full-duplex call quality over Internet connections.


To make free calls, you and the person you call must both have the Internet PhoneJack
hardware or another sound board and Internet telephone software installed. But you can
still save money calling from an Internet phone to a regular phone or private branch
exchange using Net2Phone software from IDT Corp. of Hackensack, N.J.


Cost reductions are the most dramatic for calls from an overseas PC to the United
States. Daytime rates for Net2Phone links are 15 cents per minute; evening and night rates
are a nickel less. Savings from the United States to other countries are
significant—rates to China or Russia are about 79 cents per minute.


To call a standard phone over the Internet, you must have an account set up with IDT
and prepay call time. Only if both parties have PhoneJack and Internet connections are
calls from anywhere in the world free.


Unfortunately for road warriors who make calls from their notebook computers, the
PhoneJack is not available as a PC Card, so call quality is poor. But those who work
overseas for extended periods or travel to sites that have Internet PhoneJack installed in
a PC can save big money for calls back to the office.


Your phone cord plugs into the PhoneJack card. When a call comes in, your phone rings
and the software launches. To place a call, you click on an entry in the phone directory,
which you must set up in advance.


Because PhoneJack is a full-duplex card that operates independently of a PC’s
installed sound board. The call experience is more like a normal phone call than it is
with a standard, half-duplex sound card.


Half-duplex means the card cannot process inbound and outbound sounds at the same time.
That’s fine for most PC applications, but calls sound like walkie-talkie
conversations.


PhoneJack might even improve your PC performance, because it handles voice compression
and decompression instead of loading them onto the processor.


You must open the PC case to install the card. PhoneJack works fine with Plug and Play
under Microsoft Windows 95. My test system configured it automatically, and the driver
software loaded and installed from the CD-ROM with no glitches.


Ports on the back of the card can be confusing, so learn their functions before
inserting the card. There are ports for a telephone cable, microphone, speaker and
handset.


The phone and handset RJ connectors are different sizes, but the mike and speaker
sockets are the same size and, as with most cards I have tested, their descriptions are
just stamped into the metal. They become almost unreadable in a tower configuration.


Payback time for the investment in two PhoneJack cards depends on call patterns and
normal telephone costs. If your office makes a 30-minute phone call per day to the same
overseas number for two business weeks, two PhoneJack cards will pay for themselves in
that time.


On the other hand, if you’re paying FTS 2000’s rates for almost all calls, it
could take months to recoup the PhoneJack cost.


Although both hardware and software worked as advertised, I encountered variable delays
because of the way the Internet transports files. Phone calls on the Internet are nothing
more than exchanges of compressed audio files.


I found calls easy to place and the sound quality (not counting delays) comparable to
standard phone-to-phone connections. For overseas calls, the quality even exceeded regular
service, and in many countries it does seem to be easier to make Internet connections than
to get through by telephone.


Users have gotten accustomed to delays associated with anything done over the Internet,
and it’s especially noticeable in a phone call. That is directly related to the Net
itself and not something happening inside your computer. Such pauses will continue for the
foreseeable future; internal PC hardware or software can’t fix them. I do not
recommend PhoneJack for calls from the using Internet to regular telephones because of the
complexity of billing arrangements.


Internet PhoneJack follows the H.323 compression standard and works with Microsoft
NetMeeting, Internet Phone from Vocaltec Communications Ltd. of Northvale, N.J., and
IDT’s Net2Phone software mentioned above. A $5 IDT Net2Phone credit comes in the box.


If you have tried and dismissed using Internet telephony with standard sound cards, you
will be amazed at the sound quality from this product, especially if your office makes a
lot of overseas phone calls. Three-way calling will become possible with a forthcoming
LineJack version.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s.

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