What a difference an update makes in Nero's SIPPS Connect VoIP adapter. Compared to the previous version, the newest release of this VoIP softphone offers markedly improved quality in calls to both analog lines and other SIPPS Connect users. The program thankfully retains its no-cost talking between SIPPS Connect users, as well as other nice features such as an ad-free dashboard and the ability to record calls. However, SIPPS Connect is still beset by videoconferencing hiccups and a puzzling configuration process, causing us to stick by our original guns in recommending Skype 2 for a better overall VoIP experience with a softphone.
Before you can make a VoIP call, you must have two things in place--an adapter and a gateway. For more on how the VoIP process works, check out CNET editors' guide to VoIP. While some companies, such as Skype and NetZero, provide both the adapter and the gateway, Nero offers only the first part of the equation in its SIPPS Connect softphone. SIPPS Connect comes in two different forms: the for-pay, full-featured version, which includes features such as videoconferencing, an answering machine, and instant-messaging capabilities, and a no-cost, stripped-down version (SIPPS Free) that lacks these and other features. You can buy the full-featured version in one of two ways. The first involves paying $24.99 to download a single user-license for the product from Nero's Web site; you can also get two licenses on a $29.99 CD that's available at retail stores such as Fry's. The only way to get SIPPS Free is to download it from the company's Web site. If you're not sure which one you want, Nero permits you to download a demo of the full-featured program that's free for the first 30 days. When the time's up, you're prompted to buy the product; should you choose not to, you can still continue to use it as the pared-down SIPPS Free (the extra features will be locked at this point).
We installed both the full-featured SIPPS Connect and SIPPS Free. Each proved fairly easy to install, but their configuration processes were a different matter. The crux of their difficulties lies in choosing a gateway. With SIPPS Free, the configuration wizard presents you with three gateway choices: Nikotel (one of Nero's preferred VoIP service plan providers based in Europe), other, and none. While techies will understand that these choices translate to using the IP address of Nikotel, another third-party provider, or their own ISP to make calls, newbies will think that they must either pay for a Nikotel plan or figure out what a gateway is and whether they already have access to a free one. This will probably deter those who simply want to use the program to make free calls to other SIPPS Connect buddies. The wizard also fails to clarify that in addition to Nikotel's paid plans, which enable users to make calls to and receive calls from landline and cell phones, the provider offers a free plan that allows SIPPS Connect users to make free calls to each other. Were this stated more clearly, it would save novices the headache of trying to identify their own free gateway.
The configuration wizard for the full-featured SIPPS Connect omits one of the gateway choices, offering just SipTalk (another Nero preferred provider) or none. Unlike Nikotel, SipTalk doesn't provide a free plan, so users must either pay for SipTalk or go the route of using their own gateway. The only support recourse for either configuration procedure is a brief quick-start guide (available online or, for those who buy the product on CD, hard copy inside the box) that doesn't elaborate on key configuration steps, such as how to locate a network's IP address. The most valuable nugget of info in the guide is that SIPPS Connect users who want to call each other for free must make those calls through the same gateway; that is, someone using the SipTalk gateway can't place a free call to another person using the Nikotel gateway. Users don't have to sign up with a SIPPS Connect third-party provider, but they do have to sign up with the same Internet service telephony provider, such as Vonage.
The SIPPS Connect dashboard offers the same standard list of features as the prior-generation interface, including a virtual keypad, microphone and headphone volume controls, and drop-down lists for outgoing calls and 10 quick-dial numbers. Should you find the dashboard's appearance too plain, you can spice it up with a skin. Clicking the address book icon opens your contact list in another window; you may then enter new individuals and groups, assigning numbers as well as IM handles, though the service supports only AOL, ICQ, MSN, and Jabber, but not the popular Yahoo instant messenger. In addition, the dashboard provides icons for call forwarding, call holding, conference calling between 3 callers (Skype 2 lets you conference with up to 5 people, 10 if you have an Intel dual-core PC), and your voicemailbox, which also stores call recordings, should you choose to record a call. If you've configured your SIPPS Connect service to use video calling, the dashboard includes a video-camera icon that you must click before placing or receiving a video-enabled call; a preview video feed from your camera will then appear in another window, and once you've established a connection with another video caller, that feed theoretically shows up in yet another window. The SIPPS Free dashboard lacks several of these features, including videoconferencing, quick-dial numbers, instant messaging, voicemail, and skins.
When it comes to voice call quality, the latest version of SIPPS Connect is miles ahead of its predecessor. In our anecdotal tests of voice calls between SIPPS Connect users, both callers experienced generally clear and problem-free connections. The only imperfection of note was a slight digital effect on each end that distorted a few words every once in a while, yet not often enough to be truly annoying. Our attempts at videoconferencing proved far less successful: sometimes after successfully establishing a video feed between callers, the program crashed the computers on both ends soon after each feed was initiated. Other times, callers were able to maintain the voice portion of the call, but the video feed quickly crapped out and couldn't be reestablished. In short, we were never able to make a video call.
In CNET Labs' tests of SIPPS Connect-to-analog calls, the updated SIPPS Connect once again performed much better than the prior version. We experienced none of the intermittent static and feedback that plagued its predecessor. Our calls were almost crystal clear, save for the same slight digital effect that we heard in our computer-to-computer calls. We also came across a brief breakup here and there when downloading and uploading info during calls, but again, none of these issues was excessively frustrating. However, beware of the free, flimsy headset that's included in the retail box--call quality plummets when using it.
Nero supplies the status quo in VoIP service and support. The company does not offer tech support by phone but rather requires users to seek help via its Web site, which includes a knowledge base, a forum, FAQs, and a form that you can fill out to receive answers via e-mail.