After we installed and set up Skype and Vonage, we made a few test calls. The Skype soft phone includes a contact called "echo1234" just for this purpose. After installing Skype and signing in to your account, you can call echo1234 to make sure everything's set up properly. If everything is correct, you'll hear a recording prompting you to leave a brief message that will be played back to you.
Receiving a Skype call is a lot like receiving an instant message. The program plays a ring tone and flashes an icon to let you know someone is trying to reach you. If the call is from another Skype user, the program tells you who is calling. You then decide whether to accept the call.
To compare how the two services work, we called the same number using both Skype and Vonage. We decided to take advantage of the ability to make free long-distance calls and called They Might Be Giants' Dial-a-Song line. To do this using Skype, we entered the character "+" (required to make a call to a traditional phone), then we entered the rest of the number the same way we would on a land line.
Our setup worked, but Dial-a-Song was broken -- we heard a screech rather than a song. Also, since we were using the built-in speaker and microphone on a laptop, the audio was a little distorted. Using a headset, a WiFi phone or a phone adapter can improve call quality substantially.
Making and receiving phone calls using Vonage is just like making and receiving phone calls on a cell phone or land line. When we called Dial-a-Song using Vonage, our setup worked, but Dial-a-Song was still broken.
One common concern about VoIP service is whether the sound quality matches that of traditional phone service. In the Vonage calls we made, the difference was about the same as the difference between MP3s and CDs. Our Skype calls suffered from using a built-in speaker and microphone, but it was still pretty good for free service.
The quality of a person's Internet connection and the equipment used to make and receive calls can make a tremendous difference in quality for any VoIP service. If the data packets containing the call are lost or slowed down in transit, the call can become distorted or pieces of the conversation can disappear entirely. In addition, some people experience echoes in their VoIP calls, although we did not experience this in our test calls.
Whether VoIP is right for you depends largely on whether you need a traditional phone line too and how many long-distance calls you make. Whether Skype or Vonage is right for you depends on what you hope to use the service to do. If you hope to replace your home phone service, Vonage, or another full-service VoIP plan, can be a good choice. Skype, on the other hand, can let you make free calls to friends and family as a supplement to your regular phone service. It's especially convenient if the people you wish to call are Skype users as well.
For more information on VoIP, the Internet and related topics, see the links on the next page.