SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - I can't always get through to my Mom--at least I couldn't while testing Actiontec Electronics Inc.'s Internet Phone Wizard, a nifty new product that connects your telephone to the Internet to allow free U.S. long-distance calling. When it works, the system convincingly mimics a regular call, but it didn't succeed every time.
I found that when I called Mom, my 56-kbps winmodem slowed to 28 kbps. With the first calls, the telephone at Mom's house rang and I could hear her answer, but she couldn't hear me. After several tries, we finally made contact, but the sound was occasionally choppy. Later, I used a DSL connection in the PC World Test Center and got much better results.
The US$100 USB shipping unit I tested resembles an external modem, with one modular jack to accommodate an analog phone line and a second jack for plugging in a standard telephone handset: Tap the phone's pound key twice to toggle between Internet and analog calls.
The Phone Wizard sends calls through one of several Internet telephony service providers, which patch Internet calls through to anyone you dial who has a standard telephone connection. Actiontec's unit can work with any of five ITSPs, but it integrates only one (Deltathree.com) into its own software. Setup was easy on my Win 98 PC. (Win 2000 and Millennium versions are in the works.)The ITSPs' free, ad-supported services have attracted major customer demand, and Internet calling is promising, but I won't be dumping my long-distance carrier just yet.
Actiontec Internet Phone Wizard
PRO: Facilitates free long-distance calls from a regular phone.
CON: Uneven quality, ITSPs request personal data and use banner ads.
VALUE: Good for chatty folks who value savings over sound quality.
List price: $100 (USB version), $80 (PCI card)Actiontec800/797-7001www.internetphonewizard.com.