One attraction of VoIP technology is that you can—at least in theory—take your phone number with you anywhere you go. Because your phone service isn't dependent on physical phone lines or a particular address, you can plug in the equipment anywhere there's a broadband Internet connection to make and receive calls—and those on the other end of the calls will have no idea you aren't calling from your usual location.
Of course, cell phones are also portable, but minutes can be costly, especially during weekday business hours. VoIP plans typically include unlimited calling within the United States (and sometimes to other countries) for a monthly fee that's much lower than the typical cell phone service.
However, with the most popular consumer providers such as Lingo and Vonage, taking your VoIP service on the road can be a bit of a hassle. It involves unplugging your analog telephone adapter (ATA) box, which is typically about the size of a fat hardback book. Transportable, sure, but it does take up quite a bit of precious space in your luggage, and you have to be able to plug it into your broadband modem or router when you reach your destination. In addition, you need to take along an analog phone to plug into it.
But several companies have recently come out with USB devices that make it more convenient to take your VoIP service with you. Here's an overview of some of your options.
Vonage recently came out with a new product called the V-Phone. It's a small portable USB device that fits on your keychain. When you plug it into a computer's USB slot, it runs Vonage's soft-phone software (called Vonage Talk) from the 256-MB flash memory drive built into the device, so you don't have to install any soft-phone software on the computer's hard disk.
V-Phone comes with an earpiece microphone that plugs into the device, or you can use a Bluetooth headset with it. It works with Windows 2000 or Windows XP. There's a compatibility issue with Windows Vista, but you can make it work by setting the compatibility mode on the Vonage Talk software. (V-Phone doesn't support Linux or Mac operating systems.)
The interface is simple: A three-tabbed page for the soft-phone keypad, contacts list, and call history. When a call comes in, a dialog box pops up that shows the caller ID information and displays buttons to answer or ignore the call.
The calling plan is the same as for Vonage's original service plans: $15 a month for 500 minutes or $25 a month for unlimited calling. There's also a business plan for $35 a month. Unfortunately, you can't use your existing Vonage account for a V-Phone; you have to get a new phone number for it.
V-Phone includes the same features as traditional Vonage service; call waiting, call forwarding, and so forth are all part of the package. You can also install an Outlook add-on that puts a Vonage toolbar in Microsoft Outlook 97 or later, which you can use to place calls.
V-Phone creates two logical drives on the computer—using the next two available drive letters. This can be a problem if you have a mapped network drive; V-Phone may not recognize it and will try to use the drive letter that's already in use by the network drive. To fix this, you may have to disconnect the network drive and assign it a different drive letter that's later in the alphabet.
The Phone2Go Voice Stick is a similar product offered by myJabber. You can select the capacity of the flash drive, from 32 MB to 1024 MB (1 GB). As with V-Phone, the myJabber software runs entirely from the flash drive. It includes an instant messaging program along with the soft-phone software.
Designed for corporate use, myJabberAE is the myJabber soft-phone software. The myJabberIM program is customizable and allows for both individual and group chat, with support for proxy servers and SSL.
The myJabber products use the standard SIP protocols and provide VoIP service through UnifiedDirect. Residential rates start at $9.99 per month. You can get unlimited calling to the United States, Canada, and select European countries for $34.99 a month. There are also service plans for Pocket PC and business plans starting at $19.99 a month.
magicJack is another keychain-sized USB device that allows you to make VoIP calls when you're on the go. This one functions more as a portable ATA; it has an RJ11 jack into which you can plug a regular analog phone handset.
Simply dial the phone as you would with a regular phone line; there's no soft-phone software to worry about. It includes standard VoIP features such as call forwarding, caller ID, and call waiting, as well as Find Me, Follow Me and voice mail.
Perhaps the best part is the price: After you buy the USB device for less than $40, you pay only $19.99 per year for unlimited calling in the United States. And the first year is free with the purchase of the device. magicJack is currently in beta testing, but will be available in April.
A solution in search of a problem?
All these VoIP gadgets are high on the cool factor, but before buying one and committing to a service plan, you should assess just how much portable VoIP will benefit you. If you have a cell phone plan with a large number of minutes and good coverage, you may not need to take VoIP on the road.
On the other hand, if you have a plan with a low number of minutes, VoIP calls can be much less expensive than cellular minutes. This is even more true if you make a lot of international calls, since the price difference there is even greater.
If you're thinking of a VoIP device as a substitute for cellular service, remember that you must have a high-speed Internet connection to use VoIP. (On the other hand, VoIP will work inside some facilities where you can't get a cell phone signal.) Also remember that these portable VoIP services don't support 911 locator services, so they aren't the best option in an emergency.
The portable devices don't really do anything that you can't do with Skype. However, unlike Skype, you don't have to install the software on the PC you're using. This makes the USB devices a good option if you use public computers or other systems on which you can't or don't want to install software.
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Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.