Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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October 2005, Week 3 -- Attention, Phone Companies: Oblivion Calling

Internet Phone

   We came across one of the world's neat devices this month: another phone that makes free or very-low-cost long-distance calls, and this one has no awful echoes. It uses the popular Skype software and any high-speed Internet connection.


   It's called USB Internet Phone from USRobotics, and it's a breeze to use. First you load Skype software into a computer that has a broadband high-speed connection. You can download this software from Then you can make a call.


   We plugged the phone cord into a USB port, dialed a number and pushed the button on the green handset. (It's funny that we still call it "dial," when we no longer use dial telephones.) If you are calling another Skype user, the call is free -- anywhere. If you are calling any other number, you need to buy something called "Skype-out," a call credit line from Skype. We bought $10 worth for six months. Since most long-distance calls made this way cost around 2 or 3 cents a minute (2 cents to call China, for example), $10 worth seemed enough.




   The biggest surprise with this phone wasn't the simplicity, which was awesome enough, but the sound quality. In our previous tests of Skype-enabled phones, we got an annoying echo when we called anyone who was not a Skype user. It was so annoying that we would hang up and use a regular phone line. This is the first Skype phone we've tried that has no echo.




   We also tried the phone with Google's new Google Talk feature, a Skype competitor. This has received a lot of press attention in recent weeks. The USRobotics phone had no trouble using Google Talk, but the sound quality wasn't quite as good as with the Skype service. Since there was no change in the phone, this indicates to us that Google Talk isn't quite ready for prime time.




This phone is great, and it's cheap: $47 to $49 from discounters we found on the Web. It's the size of a candy bar and has no batteries; it draws power from the USB port. There are no other charges, unless you want to buy Skype-out minutes. More info on the phone is at the USRobotics Web site: (For those of you who enjoy background notes, USRobotics takes its name from Isaac Asimov's science fiction book "I Robot.")










   It's only been out a month or so, but Microsoft has already dropped the price on its new Microsoft Student program to $70. This makes it quite a good deal since it comes with the encyclopedia Encarta, which has a list price of $50 on its own. This price drop is so new that we could only find it at Microsoft's own site:


   Encarta started out life as an ugly duckling more than 20 years ago, but has turned into a swan today. We love it. Along with Encarta, the buyer gets a bunch of aids for doing homework and creating special study projects and reports. This is all interwoven with Encarta, so the student is taken in and out of the encyclopedia as he or she works on a study project.




   We found one of the most interesting study tutorials in the "language arts" section. Inside were instructions on how to do plain expository writing, persuasive writing or fiction. Under fiction writing there was a series of questions that forced you to think about what was necessary to move the story along: the characters' appearances, ages, personalities, strengths and weaknesses and goals; creating a time line; the setting; the conflict, etc. There are also templates for writing in Spanish, French and German.




Some of the templates require the use of Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint and Word, which are part of Microsoft Office but not included in Microsoft Student. The templates are included because marketing research found that most high school students already have Microsoft Office, which is sold to students at a cost well below regular retail. We found it on the Web for $68 to $110 in special pricing for students and academic staff. The list price for the rest of us is $400.




Free Directory Information



 Free 411

   If you are as annoyed as we are by having to pay 75 cents to call to get a phone number from "Information," you'll like 1-800-free411. It gives you the same service for free.




   Because some pay phones are owned and set in place by businesses other than local phone companies, they have been known to charge as much as $3.49 for an information request. Ouch! The only "cost" in using 1-800-free411 is having to listen to an ad. We found the ads to be very short, no more than one sentence, and most of the numbers we asked for were provided with no ads. There was also no charge for connecting to the number provided, unlike the 50 cents and up charged by phone companies. More info at







 Free Dictionary One of several dictionary sites, but this one starts out with interesting shorts on its home pages: this day in history, word of the day, quotation of the day, article of the day ("the impact that killed the dinosaurs"), etc. Moving on, it provides links to specialized dictionaries in business, science, medical, legal, etc.