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Alternative Landline Telephone Services
PART 2 of 2
by Ira Wilsker
Last week I discussed some of the very popular, somewhat portable alternative telephone devices from magicJack and netTALK. This week I will discuss some of the more sophisticated alternative telephone services from Ooma, the cable TV companies, Obihai, Vonage, and Skype.
My latest attempt at a home based VoIP service was an Ooma Telo device. While initially more expensive than netTALK or magicJack, it seems to have better voice quality, and virtually unlimited free local and long distance calling without a monthly or annual subscription fee, making it quickly more cost competitive than a magicJack or netTALK if used for more than two years. Retailing for $149, it is widely available new for under $100, and several of the "bargain" websites periodically have the Ooma (refurbished) for around $69. On Black Friday, I purchased my new Ooma Telo for the same price as others charged for a refurbished model. Installation was very fast and easy, with the online activation an intuitive process. I selected a local phone number, and was able to make and receive phone calls in just a very few minutes. The included AC adapter, Ethernet cable (included), and cord from the telephone connect to the back of the Ooma; as with other VoIP devices, a broadband connection and available router port are required. The device, which is probably the best looking of the devices I considered, is possibly one of the most full featured devices available. I tried its much acclaimed technical support (a weakness with many of its competitors), and it was fast, polite, and effective. Published reviews from trade and technical journals raved about the voice quality of the Ooma over its competitors, and while I did not scientifically test it, I can say that the voice quality was excellent. In order to be fair, the free local and long distance service is not really free, as Ooma is required to collect taxes from its users; according to the Ooma website, "Federal universal service charges, FCC regulatory fee, state and local taxes, fees & surcharges and regulatory and compliance fees are billed monthly and are subject to change." I went to the tax rate calculator on the Ooma website (www.ooma.com/rates), entered my zip code, and found that the total federal and local taxes on my unlimited phone services will be $3.72 per month, charged monthly to my credit card. Reading the fine print on the websites of some of the competing VoIP services indicates that they also either are now, or may shortly start adding these same taxes and fees to their monthly or annual subscription fees. There are several Ooma devices available, including a WiFi adapter (remote devices can send and receive calls via WiFi), Bluetooth adapter (cell phones and other Bluetooth devices can connect directly to Ooma if in range), remote handsets, and other devices. There are Ooma devices explicitly for business users that can connect the businesses' phone lines to VoIP, getting the benefits of free (plus taxes) unlimited local and domestic long distance service. Ooma also offers relatively inexpensive international long distance calling, either at a very low "pennies per minute" rate or a monthly flat rate of $17.99 for unlimited international long distance calling to 61 countries.
WalMart is heavily advertising BasicTalk digital phone service, complete with the most popular services and unlimited local and domestic long distance calling. I tried a BasicTalk and it appeared to work well, with excellent voice quality. While the VoIP device itself is among the lowest cost of any of its competitors at only $9.99, and has had excellent reviews, BasicTalk also charges a monthly service fee of $9.99, which, including the taxes and fees, actually would cost (in my zip code) $12.11 per month. This is far less expensive than the traditional analog phone service, generating considerable savings over just a few years, but quickly becomes more expensive than most of its competitors.
It is almost a "given" that cable broadband providers also offer a digital (VoIP) phone service along with TV and internet services. While quality is often excellent, and feature rich, it is often among the most expensive of the competing services, even though it is common to offer a "teaser" rate for the first 12 months of service, going up to normal price the 13th month and thereafter. Some cable carriers have announced a "new lower monthly rate" of $19.99 for service, while several other cable companies are charging $24.95 to $39.95 per month, with charges for some additional services. These monthly rates do not include the added taxes and fees, which are similar to most of the other carriers. Different cable providers have different fee structures for the equipment necessary to connect the home telephone to the cable service, with some leasing (renting) the VoIP device, some including the cost of the device with the monthly subscription fee, and at least one offering a port directly on the rented cable modem for the phone jack. While still cost effective when compared to the traditional landlines, cable digital phone service is among the most expensive alternative services available.
A very interesting device that has traditionally appealed to "techies" is the Obihai series of VoIP devices. These Obihai devices are intended to utilize other VoIP services, such as the Google Voice (GV) service, providing a very low cost of service from devices that start at $59.99 retail (often available online for about $37) for the basic OBi100 single line model, with moderately higher prices for models that support multiple lines, FAX service, and other functions. Obihai also has models that support the multiple phone lines found in office environments. Reviews of the Obihai systems have been excellent, and when used on alternative VoIP services, such as Google Voice, are among the least expensive to operate, while offering free local and domestic long distance calling, ultra low cost international calls, and other services. While slightly more complex to setup, these Obihai systems are among the least expensive to own and operate over a period of a year or two.
Vonage is another heavily advertised VoIP product, emphasizing its international calling. In order to use the Vonage service, the user must purchase a "Vonage Box" which may retail for $79.99 but is widely available deeply discounted. Vonage offers local and international "teaser" rates of about $10 per month for a limited number of months, increasing to $24.99 per month (plus taxes) for unlimited local and domestic calling, a discounted limited plan (400 minutes per month, 5 cents per minute overage) for $12.99, and international rates of $26.99 for unlimited calling to the US and over 60 countries. Along with some of the cable plans, Vonage is among the most expensive of the plans over time, but its international calling plan is among the best available.
No comparison of VoIP plans would be complete without mentioning Microsoft's Skype service. Mostly free if used between computers or smart devices, and inexpensive if calling a phone number, Skype utilizes the computer (or smart device) as the "box", along with the speaker and microphone components of the computer. I have used Skype with a set of headphones and a microphone in order to talk to other Skype users (the free calls). Calling off the Skype system, such as to other telephones, is reasonably priced, with the lowest rates being available on a subscription basis, with subscription rates being based on projected usage. Domestic (US) calling is as low as 2.3 cents per minute on a "pay as you go" basis, or $2.99 per month for unlimited calling to the US and Canada, $7.99 per month for most of North America (including landline calls to major cities in Mexico), to $13.99 per month for unlimited calling to over 60 countries. There are several telephone-looking devices that serve as a dialer, speaker and microphone that work on computers with Skype, effectively making the computer a complete telephone device. Other than the cost of the computer or smart device, Skype is among the least expensive telephone alternatives.
As the technology is changing, services such as these may be the death knell for the old fashioned, traditional telephone services.
Windows 8: New App Controls – Start Screen and Charms Bar
By Phil Sorrentino, Past President, Sarasota PCUG, FL
August 2013 issue, PC Monitor www.spcug.org philsorr (at) yahoo.com
Apps are what make mobile devices -tablets and phones- so useful. That should sound familiar, it was the same opening sentence used in last month’s Windows 8 Apps article, and it’s still very true. Apps rule. Apps are different from computer programs that operate on the Windows 7 Desktop. Each App runs in full screen; there are no overlapping windows, there are few menus, and Apps run best on a touch-screen device. The Start Screen and the Charms bar are two of the new ways to control or use Apps, the heart of the new features of windows. The Start Screen, which is the default screen after Windows 8 has been started, provides entry into the Windows 8 App Universe (rest assured that the “Desktop App” still gets you back to the old favorite, Windows 7 world). The “Charms bar” is a universal toolbar, and is hidden, but it is always available; just move the mouse to the lower (or upper) right corner of the screen and left click (Windows key+C key, also gets you there). The Charms Bar contains Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. (Now I guess you can see why it is called the Charms Bar. Don’t the icons for those options, Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings, look like charms you may have seen dangling from a charm bracelet? Well, I guess some people at Microsoft must have thought so.)
Settings, which is the gear charm (or icon), is sort of a Control Panel for the App Universe; don’t fret, the familiar Windows 7 type Control Panel is still available at the Start screen, just by typing “Control” and then selecting “Control Panel.”
“Settings” provides quick access to six of the most often used controls; Volume, Brightness, Notifications, Power, Network, and Keyboard. Volume, Brightness and Keyboard are pretty straight forward.
“Network” provides an opportunity to connect to a network or monitor the strength of your network signal. It also provides a way to disable all radio transmitters (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellphone, if present), by turning On, Airplane mode (something you will want to use, when boarding an airplane).
“Notifications” provides the ability to have the notifications pop-up messages disabled for 1, 3, or 8 hours. The idea here is that, in a business environment, you may not want to be interrupted by the fact that you have an incoming mail message, while you are in the middle of an important presentation, or such.
“Power” provides the “Shut down” options, shut-down, sleep, and re-start (hibernate has to be added to the list, if desired). “Power” provides a way to shut down the computer, similar to the options provided on the Windows 7 “Start” button.
The “Charms bar – Settings” option also gets you to a few other controls, specific to Apps. At the top of the Settings panel, there are entries to “Tiles,” “Help” and others like “PC info.” These options seem to change depending on what you have been doing with your computer. I’ve only used the “Help” option which seemed fairly helpful. Also, at the bottom of the “Charms bar – Settings” panel, there is an entry to a whole host of PC settings. To get to these controls just click “Change PC settings”. Many of these Settings provide similar capabilities to those found in the Control Panel. The following is a summary of these categories.
“Personalize” provides controls for the “Lock” screen, controls for the “Start” Screen, and choices for your “Account Picture”. You can even create a picture for your account using the on-board camera, just look into the screen (camera) and click the Camera icon below “Create an account picture”, and then just tap the touch-pad, (or screen if you have a touch-sensitive screen).
“Users” lets you add accounts to this machine.
“Notifications” allows you to determine if Apps can provide Alerts to the operator. Each App’s Alert can be individually enabled or disabled. In addition, the Notification sound can be turned on or off.
“Search” provides control over the Search capability and allows you to determine which Apps can use Search. This is also the place where you can “Delete your Search History,” for those of you who would like to keep your Searches private.
“Share” provides control over the Apps that can be used to share things, like photos or web pages. You can individually enable or disable Apps like Mail, People, and SkyDrive as methods for sharing.
“General” is a collection of general settings. Here you can set the time, modify the way spelling errors are handled. “General” also includes two new features for initializing your computer, 1-Refresh, and 2-Remove & Reinstall. The first feature, “Refresh your PC without affecting your files” resets your computer settings to their original factory states, and removes any Apps that didn’t come from the Windows App Store, while leaving your files untouched. The second feature “Remove everything and reinstall Windows” sets your computer back to the way it was originally delivered. All your files are deleted and your settings are put back to their factory states. This might be something you may want to do when or if you give or sell your computer to someone.
“Privacy” lets you determine if Apps can use your Location, Name, or Account Picture. Some Apps can provide useful information if they are allowed to use your location, like an App that shows you the cheapest gas station nearest to you.
“Devices” displays every device your computer is connected to, such as printers, scanners, cameras, etc.
“Wireless” provides control over your wireless networks. Here you can enable Airplane which would turn off your Wi-Fi network (Bluetooth and/or Cell, if included on your mobile device).
“Ease of Access” provides a few controls to make your computing experience easier if you have hearing or seeing difficulties. All of the “Ease of Access” controls can still be found in Control Panel.
“Sync your Settings” provides individual enable/disable switches for the things you want to synchronize over your internet connection. Your settings, passwords, favorites and other preferences can sync to any Windows 8 machine that you log into.
“Homegroup” provides an easy way to set up a network among several Windows machines at the same location. Within a Homegroup, you can easily share documents, pictures, videos, music, and printers.
“Windows Update” shows your choice as to Update, or not to Update, Windows 8. If you have chosen “Turn on recommended settings” in the Control Panel, then Windows will periodically check for and install Windows updates. Other choices are to “Check for updates but let me choose when to download and install them,” and “Download updates but let me choose whether to install them.” “Turn on recommended settings” is probably the safest choice.
Now you see that we have all the necessary control over Apps, let’s go and take some out for a test ride. Well, maybe in a future article.
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