The first thing that we noticed upon loading up Freshtel's VoIP client -- known as Firefly, currently in its second incarnation -- was how similar to a mobile phone interface it all looks, with just a touch of Skype. Then again, between Skype and mobiles, you've got most of the technologically able world's communication preferences in the one basket, so that's not a bad thing per se. Contacts are managed list style in the "screen" of the mobile, which by default will minimise down to your system tray when not in use, and in instant messaging style, it'll tell you when contacts on your list come online. As with any other softphone, you'll need a microphone and headset to make and recieve calls.
Firefly will run on any system using Windows 98SE or better and requires a 400MHz processor and 128MB of memory, along with the naturally requisite broadband connection and a soundcard with suitable input jacks. That's all very low-key by today's system standards, so essentially it's usable by just about every PC user. Firefly doesn't support Mac OS X or Linux, although if you've got your own analogue telephone adaptor (ATA) you can configure it to run on Freshtel's service without requiring the Firefly client.
At the time of writing, Freshtel offers four different plan types. At the inexpensive end of the market, it's entirely possible to use Firefly and pay no monthly charge, although the flipside of that is that call costs are higher -- as an example, local calls within Australia cost 7c/minute on the free plan, whereas they're 10c/untimed on any paid plan.
The $5.95 monthly plan offers $6 worth of call credit, 10c/untimed calls and 29c/minute mobile calls within Australia. The $9.95 plan offers no call credit, but gives you a standard PSTN phone number, while the $29.95 plan combines a $25 call credit with a PSTN number and the same calling rates. A full list of international calling rates is available on Freshtel's Web site. As with every other VoIP provider, calls within the Firefly network are free of charge, although users on limited download allowances should keep an eye on their usage patterns -- VoIP calls still do use up data.
One useful factor with Freshtel's VoIP offerings is that they offer the facility to create sub-accounts; these accounts can access their call logs but not add credit or change vital settings, which could offer a good way to manage a small businesses' phone usage -- or just curb a teenager's rampant phone usage.
Freshtel also sells a number of VoIP accessories designed around Firefly, from USB Flash Drive Stick Phones to regular VoIP headsets and ATA devices for connecting up a regular phone if that's more your VoIP style.
We tested the Freshtel service with a variety of calls to local lines, mobiles and international PSTN phones. It's typically very hard to pinpoint sources of error with VoIP clients, as noise interference can come from anything ranging from poor ISP performance to problems with the VoIP provider to mobile signal interference... and so on. By and large we were happy enough with Freshtel's service for most of our calls; we did notice more interference with international calls and mobile calls, but that can happen with regular PSTN calls as well.
One factor that did strike us with Freshtel's account charges was that the local call costs are rather high for customers on the Free plan. 7c/minute might not sound like that much, but you've only got to talk for three minutes to make a standard PSTN call seem like good value, and a number of other VoIP providers offer local calls on free plans at around 10-15c, untimed. Obviously, this is intended to shift you towards the paid plans, such as the $5.95 plan, which offers more than that in call value -- as long as you're using that many calls.