CallOut from VoIP Programs to Fixed/Cell Phones

I have to start this blog entry with an apology. I wrote in December that I had tried to put some money on my SightSpeed account so that I could try their CallOut capability, but I couldn't do it because I have a Swiss credit card.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I have to start this blog entry with an apology. I wrote in December that I had tried to put some money on my SightSpeed account so that I could try their CallOut capability, but I couldn't do it because I have a Swiss credit card. It turns out that I was making a bad assumption. The form you have to fill out asks for the billing address of the credit card, and says "ZIP Code", which sets off all sorts of red flags with me. I've had many years of experience with online credit card payment forms which will not accept non-U.S./Canadian cards, and the ZIP-Code field is a dead giveaway for one of those. So when I saw that, I didn't go any further. It turns out that was a bad assumption; if I had just gone ahead and tried it, as I did today, it would have worked. Not only did it work, but it was amazingly fast, the credit showed up on my SightSpeed account almost instantly! So, I apologize to SightSpeed for writing that incorrectly - and I wish you guys would have yelled at me and told me that I was wrong!

Ok, back to the matters at hand. The next step in my process of evaluating and comparing the major Video / VoIP / IM programs is to look at their PSTN/POTS (Public Switched Telephone Network / Plain Old Telephone Service) dial out capability. I am going to concentrate on technical aspects and call quality, although I will add a bit about costs at the end. Personally, I find one of the biggest advantages of these Dial-Out capabilities is when I am traveling, it certainly beats paying cell phone roaming fees or hotel telephone charges!

The first of the programs that I tried was Gizmo - not out of any sense of priority, but just because I still had plenty of credit left on my account. For the test, I made calls to my brother's fixed and cell phones in Atlanta, and to my fixed and cell phones here in Switzerland. In every case, the calls went through smoothly and quickly, and the audio quality was acceptable. There seemed to be a slight "clip" to the audio, particularly each time one of us started to speak after a pause, as if Gizmo were being a bit over-aggressive in doing background noise suppression, and was cutting off the audio completely during a pause, then losing a fraction of a second each time the conversation started again. This could be something else entirely, another bad assumption on my part, but it happened on every call, regardless of where or what type. In any case, it was not so bad as to make the conversation unpleasant.

While I was in a CallOut, I could bring up the Dialpad in Gizmo, and then click the phone buttons there to produce DTMF tones. This caught my interest, because it is something the people where constantly complaining about in the Skype User Forums, that trying to navigate voicemail systems and such with tone dialing didn't work in Skype. I tried it with my brother's voicemail, and with the answering machine in my home, and both of them worked flawlessly with Gizmo. I have no idea why Skype (STILL) has so much trouble with it. Strike one against Skype...

Gizmo also has an excellent call history log, showing the number dialed, the date and time of the call, the duration, and the cost. I was a bit suspicious of the cost and charging at first, because Gizmo goes through two stages when making a CallOut, first you get the typical Gizmo ringing sound, then it switches to the PSTN ring. When it makes that switch, the "$" symbol shows up to tell you that it is a paid call, and the call timer starts to run. I was afraid that it was actually charging me before the call connected, but that proved not to be the case. I tried making a call and then hanging up before it was answered, but after the $ and the timer started, and it showed in the call log as 0:00 duration and no charge; I also tried calling and connecting, watching the call timer and hanging up when it was over a minute, but I knew it was actually connected less than a minute. Again, the call log got the actual connect time right, and the charge was right.

Next up for testing was ooVoo. This was particularly easy to do, because they are currently running a special promotion with all calls to fixed or mobile numbers in the U.S. or Canada free! Of course, I couldn't try calling my Swiss phones (even for a price - ooVoo is still working out the details of paid calling), but I could try both of my brothers numbers. Once again, the calls went through quickly and easily, and the sound quality was good. This time, rather then being "clipped", my brother said it sounded like there was a faint sound of running water behind me, not bad but just a continuous background noise. Again, this would not interfere with a normal conversation.

The ooVoo call window looks exactly the same for a CallOut as is does for any other ooVoo call; when you have a phone connection, there is a small icon at the bottom of the window showing a telephone and the number you have dialed. While we were talking, I noticed a small icon that looked like a phone keypad at the left side of the call window. Sure enough, clicking that brought up a keypad that I could click to produce tones. I called again to my brother's voicemail, and once again was able to navigate with the tones with no trouble at all. Very nice, and very simple. Strike two against Skype...

The ooVoo call log is typically well designed and colorful, but is not quite as complete as Gizmo's. It shows the type of call, number called, date and time of the call and the duration, but doesn't give the cost. Of course, this might be a side effect of the fact that calls are free right now, so there is not cost; perhaps it will show up when they start charging.

Next, I tried SightSpeed. I have to say in all honesty, the audio quality of the call was the best of the three. Not by a lot, and as I said for each of the others, they were certainly acceptable and usable, but with SightSpeed it just sounded completely "normal", like any other phone call. The "Telephone" call screen is very obvious, with the phone dial pad right in the center. It stays up during your call, and you can produce DTMF tones by clicking the phone buttons. I was, once again, able to navigate in voicemail and in my answering machine with no problems. Strike three against Skype - why in the world after all these years are they still unable to do this, and they have to fall back on either recommending some sort of third-party plug-in, or that people carry a DTMF tone generator around with them, and hold it up to the microphone!!!

I wasn't able to find a call log in the free version of SightSpeed at all. There is a "Call History" button, which takes you to a web page, but then informs you that Call History isn't available with the free service plan. Too bad, because this was the only thing I could find to complain about in SightSpeed dial out!

Last, and certainly least, comes Skype. I didn't try it. First and foremost because I would never trust them with any of my money, not even $10 of it. I have seen far too many complaints from Skype customers about accounts being blocked - sometimes before they could even make the first call after loading credit! I know what Skype "Customer Support" is like, once they block your account it takes a minimum of FOUR DAYS to get any response, and even that is generally not a resolution, it is only an acknowledgment that they got your request. Even in the Skype User Forums, the response from the exports is "File a Customer Support request and come back after FOUR DAYS". On top of that, there have been hundreds of reports of calls being dropped after 6 seconds, or 30 seconds, or whatever... The bottom line is, I am not about to even risk trying SkypeOut, if anyone else decides to do so... well, it's your money!

Finally, a word about costs. Generally, these services have a per-minute cost, frequently based on both where you are calling from and calling to. So it is very difficult to generalize about which one is "lowest price", because that will often depend on your specific situation and typical calling patterns. One thing to watch out for, though, is a "connect fee" which gets added to every call. Only one of these four currently does that - Skype. This base fee will skew the actual cost of calls which appear to be cheap (or even free) based on per-minute rates. You might also be able to find "All Calls Free" or "Unlimited Free Calling" plans, but make sure you read them carefully and understand what the conditions are. Gizmo has an "All Calls Free" plan, and I seem to have qualified for it, but I honestly don't understand how or why, or even exactly what it covers... Skype has (or has had) various free calling plans, but they were generally limited to calls originating and terminating in some specific country or region you had signed up for. I'm not very clear on the concept of why it matters where a call coming from a computer has originated...

With all of these programs, the CallOut service is not intended to replace traditional POTS service, and it is generally not possible to call 911 or other emergency service numbers with them. In most cases it also doesn't show any useful information for the CallerID at the receiving end, so if your contacts do call screening, you might have a tough time getting through.

jw 14/2/2008

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