Wouldn’t it be great if sometimes, when you’re sitting in front of your computer and you want to talk to someone, you could just click a few buttons and their voice would come over the speakers? You could talk about some pictures they just sent you or discuss a video you saw, while still looking at the material on your screen.
That’s what a “softphone” does — it turns your computer into a telephone. You dial by clicking a telephone image on your screen or on the keyboard keypad. The computer microphone picks up your voice, the software sends it over the Internet and it plays the sound of your friend’s voice over your computer speakers. With some services, you can see the person you’re calling and they can see you.
Two companies that offer this kind of service are Microsoft and Google. Microsoft runs their service through Skype, a company they purchased in May 2011.
Google offers Google Voice as part of its services, linked to its email and Google Apps accounts.
For both services, you have to open an account and both offer the software integrated with telephone service. Other suppliers offer softphone software separately, for use with any Internet telephone service.
For the software to work properly, your computer has to have a minimum number of features. For the operating system, your computer has to run at least Windows XP, Mac OS10.4 or Linux. Later versions of Windows and Mac OS will work as well.
To be able to work like a phone, your computer has to have speakers and a microphone. Most computers come with speakers and, if it is a laptop or all-in-one model with a camera, that probably includes a microphone, as well. People who plan to make a lot of phone calls with their computer, often get a headset with headphones and a microphone attached.
For the Google and Skype services, the phone and setup are free, while some other providers may charge a setup fee. Both services offer a video call option that lets you see the person you are calling if they have a camera installed on their computer. The big savings come when you start using the system to make long distance calls.
The Google service is free for the U.S. and Canada and costs about 10 to 15 cents per minute for most other countries. Google has a price list for each country, and it is best to check it before calling because a few countries cost much more.
The Skype service is free when the person you are calling is also on Skype. For calls to landlines or mobile phones, Skype has varying rates depending on the country. Typically, a call in North America and many other countries only costs a few cents.
Before you can use these and similar services, you have to download the software and create an account with a user name and password. If you intend to make calls that have a cost attached, you have to register with a PayPal account or a credit card.
With the formalities out of the way, use the keypad on your screen or keyboard to dial the number you want, and your computer starts acting like a telephone. You can hear the phone ringing over your speakers and the call connects when your friend either picks up the phone or, if they also have a softphone, clicks a button to answer it.
Depending on the type of speakers and microphone you have, the sound may have an echo, a bit like a speakerphone. With some experimentation moving the speakers around and changing the location of the microphone, you can get better sound.
If you have a camera on your computer, usually a small unit integrates into the top of the monitor or webcam, and your friend can see you sitting in front of your computer. If they can’t, you may have to go into the software settings or consult the phone’s help feature to activate the camera.
Although this setup works just as well as a land-line telephone in most ways, it does have some disadvantages. Because the signal goes over the Internet, it causes a short delay of about half a second. Many people don’t even notice the delay, but some find it very annoying.
Another problem with the system is that the automatic location feature for 911 calls doesn’t work. Normally, 911 call operators get the address from caller ID. Since this phone setup doesn’t have a fixed land line and resides on a computer that can change location, you have to set some things up with your service in order for the 911 location feature to work correctly.
A final disadvantage of the system is that it depends on your computer and the Internet to work. Landline phones often work even when there is a power failure because they get their power through the phone line. For softphones, if there is a power failure and the computer, Internet, routers and modems are down, it is dead as well.