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Wallet-Friendly and Easy
The $99 Internet Phone Wizard (IPW) is comparably priced to the InnoMedia InfoAccel, but it's an external unit rather than an internal one. It uses a USB connection, but if you don't want (or don't have) USB, you can get a PCI version for just $79. The package includes the requisite phone cords, a small external USB unit, and an installation CD. Setting up is straightforward: You just plug in the USB cable, install the drivers, and connect your phone to the IPW. The Actiontec is compatible with Windows 98 and Windows 98 Special Edition, but Windows Me and 2000 drivers are still in the works for the USB unit.
With your phone plugged into the IPW and the IPW plugged into your PC, you simply connect to the Internet using your computer's modem. Then you launch the dialing applet and select an ITSP. But having to choose a service provider could be daunting, and this is one of the awkward things about the IPW: Since it doesn't force you to use one provider, at times it doesn't feel totally integrated. To make a call, you pick up your phone, and a weird dial tone lets you know it's in Internet-phone mode. Dial the phone number normally, and you're connected.
And Now the Bad News
The bad news is that the IPW's sound quality is comparable to that of a cell phone conversation on a bad day. It's not quite as poor as some of the software-only Web phones, but during some calls you will hear pops and dropouts, and a perceptible time delay is omnipresent. But then again, you're not paying one red cent for the call.
The IPW has an impressive support package. Actiontec provides an unheard-of five-year warranty as well as five years of free, phone-based tech support. Help is available (via a toll number) from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, PT. Actiontec's Web site includes FAQs and email support, plus a fax-back system and a bulletin board system (BBS).
The Internet Phone Wizard is a good deal, primarily because it gives you a choice of service providers and actually delivers free long distance. Whether the savings is worth the marginal sound quality is up to you.