Posts Tagged ‘skype’

My Phone Setup

Over the past few months, I’ve assembled a set of tools to manage my phone setup. Incidentally, this has increased the quality of my calls and cut down on my monthly expenses. My current monthly cost for all phone usage is now well under $15. All thanks to the following tools:

Google Voice

Last May, I went back into full-time freelancing. With this comes a lot of clients and phone conversations. I wanted to have a phone number I could give out instead of my personal cell number. Fortunately, I got my Google Voice beta invite before the end of the summer. Google Voice gives you a new phone number that forwards to any set of phones you want. It’s set so you can selectively forward calls to individual phones based on who’s calling or on the time of day.

When you want to dial out using your Google Voice number, you go to the Google Voice website, enter the number you want to dial, then select the phone you want to ring. Your phone rings, then the number dials when you pickup. If you don’t want to use the website, you can also call your Google Voice number from one of your phones and then dial the number you want. All calls to US telephone numbers are free.

Google Voice also has voicemail. When voicemail is recorded, it is automatically transcribed into text. You can it so that the transcription automatically goes to your email or gets sent to your phone as a text message. You can also listen to your voicemails through the website and watch them play alongside the transcription.

There are a ton of other features included, but that’s the core of how it works. You can sign up for their beta and wait for an invite, or you can get invites from an existing user (if they have any). Unfortunately, it’s currently limited strictly to the United States: you must have a phone number in a US-based area code for it to work.

Eventually, they will offer number portability so you can use your existing number instead of getting a new one. I initially wanted to wait until this happened so that I could just use my existing number and filter my contacts. However, Google Voice is compelling enough that I’m now giving my new number out instead of my cell.

Skype, Gizmo5, and SIP

In addition to getting a “business” line, I also wanted to have phone conversations without using up daytime cellphone minutes. Additionally, reception in my apartment has proven spotty. My first attempt at moving off the cell involved using Skype. Unlimited incoming and outgoing (US) calls through Skype can be had for $60/year. You get a regular phone number and you can make calls from your computer or smartphone.

Skype can be handy if you’re traveling internationally and want to make calls without roaming, but the call quality is highly variable. Half the time, people could hear me fine; half the time, people said I sounded “choppy” or “computery.” I found that using a headset instead of the speakerphone on my MacBook worked better, but still ran into noticeable quality issues.

Around the time I signed up for Google Voice, I also signed up for a Gizmo5 account. Gizmo works roughly the same way Skype does. At first, I wasn’t too impressed with the audio quality of their desktop software, so I abandoned it. However, when I looked into phone options later, I found a feature that helps you get around the software issue. Gizmo supports Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). You can look up the definition if you want, but the short version is that SIP allows you to hook up any software or hardware to the account. In contrast, Skype forces you to use devices and software specifically designed for Skype.

I first tested Gizmo’s SIP functionality by downloading a simple open-source Mac program called Telephone. Google Voice and Telephone worked pretty well together, but I still had occasional issues with my speakerphone and lags. In an attempt to get around this, I bought an entry level SIP phone. It looks like a regular phone, but it plugs into your router instead of your phone line.

I’ve been using this phone for a couple of weeks now and have not received one complaint about the audio quality. The lag is also less noticeable or non-existent. I’ve only noticed a few minor issues with the phone. Getting it set up was not impossible, but you definitely had to have a good idea of what you were doing. While the connection always stays on while I’m making a phone call, the phone occasionally gets logged out of the server after a day of inactivity. In that case, you just have to unplug it and plug it back in.

Although it feels like a standard desk phone, I can’t dial directly from it without counting against Gizmo minutes (incoming calls are free). Just like other phones connected to Google Voice, I dial my numbers through the website, which then calls my Gizmo account, and then my number is dialed when I pick up.

Shortly after I signed up for my Gizmo account, Google bought Gizmo and promptly shut off new account signups. There’s much speculation that Google with further integrate Gizmo and Google Voice, potentially making dialing seamless.

In all of this, I think the key is dedicated hardware. Regardless of your computer’s speed, it’s still designed to do multiple things at once. Phone software can be tricky to build correctly. When you throw a speakerphone, Bluetooth headset, or WiFi connection into the mix, you’re pretty much asking for trouble. Hardware dedicated for phone calls can focus solely on maintaining the quality of your phone conversation.

It’s possible that Skype-specific hardware would have given me similar results as my SIP phone. If you’re considering a similar setup and SIP sounds like a lot of work, a phone or router designed for Skype might be a viable alternative. However, Google’s acquisition of Gizmo may soon produce something easier to setup.

Prepaid cellphone

Years back, prepaid cellphones were expensive; primarily bought by people looking for something to use in case of a dire roadside emergency. That’s now changed. For the longest time, I was on a 300 anytime minutes and unlimited weekend plan for $30/month plus tax. I never came close to exhausting my anytime minutes, but this was the cheapest plan including weekends. Even including my weekend use, my minute usage rarely reached 400. Also, I was being charged an exorbitant $0.20 per incoming and outgoing text message. While it wasn’t really a financial hardship, there was something irritating about paying for minutes I couldn’t use, then being expected to pay extra for something that costs cell phone companies LESS to provide.

I started hearing about T-Mobile’s newer prepaid plans and began doing the math. When I looked into them, it turns out that the versions come down as low as $0.10/minute when you buy $100 worth at a time. Multiply that rate by 300 minutes and we’re back at $30/month.

I made my move when I knew I would be out of the country for a couple of weeks. I was able to switch over to the prepaid plan almost seamlessly with a call to customer service. Same number, same phone. Savings: approximately $340 per year, when including the tax on post-paid accounts.

Being a programmer, some people automatically assume I have either an iPhone, Google Android, or some other smartphone. Actually, it’s a Samsung r225m. If you’re really interested, you can Google it, but everyone else can just rest assured when I say “this is an old phone.” It does phone calls, has an address book, does text messaging, and if I’m getting a little crazy I can turn on AIM. The battery lasts all day, and has been going strong for five and a half years.

However, this doesn’t mean I’ll keep the r225m forever. Since it’s based on GSM, I can take the SIM card out and pop it into a new phone at any time. I’m not interested in signing any new cell phone contract ever again. While it means I’ll end up paying more upfront for handsets, the long-run savings far outweigh the initial cost.

I Hate Skype

Once upon a time, Skype was a great way of doing free voice chat and making cheap international phone calls. I remember surprising and impressing European clients with a quick phone call to clear up things we had discussed over email. I also remember using it for quick 3-4 person meetings and encrypted (if basic) IM functionality.

However, it started to get annoying when people would assume that my status of “online” meant “ready to voice chat for 20 minutes.” Your only other settings were ‘away’, ‘busy’, and ‘not available’; none of these really communicated what I wanted to say. I usually was available for text chat, but very frequently didn’t have either the equipment or time for voice. It didn’t help that Skype’s default double click action was “start a voice chat.” I stopped leaving Skype on and only pulled it out for scheduled calls. Still useful software at this point, but a little annoying.

Somewhere along the line, they added group text chats. These are like IRC rooms, except that they’re invite only and you can scroll back. Helpful for when you want a private meeting room for a group of people. All is good, right?

Unfortunately, Skype’s idea for these is a little less permanent than the way people actually use them. If you get invited to one of these chats, you’re automatically added and a little window pops up the next time you log on. It will even pull up a good long history of the chat to date so you can see what people have been saying. However, in order to stay in the chat room, you must leave the window open. If you close the window, you’ve left the chat.

If you quit Skype without specifically closing the chat windows, all will be fine and they’ll be there when you come back. But if the conversation is running very quickly and you want to concentrate on work, you have to somehow hide or minimize it to get it out of the way. You can bookmark chats, but this only seems to save the conversation to date. There’s just no good way of leaving the chat temporarily and coming back to it later. Correction: Bookmarking the chats does save them (on your local machine only) so you can come back later.

Worse yet, your chat rooms are kept client side while the transcripts are seemingly kept server side. If I get invited to a chat, log into Skype with my laptop, my desktop will have absolutely no knowledge of this chat (even though I’m using the same account). Since the transcripts are already kept on the server, is it all that difficult to keep track of the chat rooms I’m in?

I hate Skype, but I’ll use it every once in a while if I absolutely have to. The software has gotten to the point where it’s too difficult to manage the distractions for it to be worth my while. If anyone out there has figured out how to fix the issues I’m having, let me know. In the meantime, Skype developers: can we get a way of keeping a list of group chats and can I get a “text only” status?