Skype made easy

This new technology is shedding its geeky image and going mainstream.

Look for Skype, the voice-over-Internet phone service, to start appearing soon in retail stores near you. Skype's free software (available at lets users with telephone headsets attached to their PCs make free calls anywhere in the world. Until recently, it was mainly a toy for propeller heads, but Skype is shedding its geeky image and going mainstream. One sure sign of that is the flood of peripherals–adapters, Wi-Fi phones, speakerphones, PBX attachments–that manufacturers are rushing to market. They will change the way people use Skype.

We tested one recently, Actiontec's very cool but flawed VoSKY Call Center (about $80). It's a tiny device that lets you make and take Skype calls at home using a regular phone instead of your computer and the Skype software. It also lets you make Skype calls from any phone when you're away from home, including from a mobile. You install the VoSKY software on a PC running Skype and use the cables provided to connect the Call Center to your phone line, a phone and the computer.

Most of the time, you'll make calls the way you always do. When you want to make a Skype call, pick up the phone, press # twice, wait for a message from VoSKY, and enter the speed dial number you set up in Skype for the contact you want to call. The device places your Skype call and you hear it ringing at the other end. When somebody calls you on Skype, it's even simpler: the Call Center rings and you answer by picking up the phone. In my tests, voice quality on Skype calls was as good as when using a headset connected directly to a PC.

You can also call in to the VoSKY Call Center from anywhere–by dialing the number of the line it's attached to–and place a Skype call remotely. The device automatically answers after the number of rings you specify, and a recorded voice asks for the password you set up. After you key it in, you can enter a speed dial number to place your Skype call.

Problem is, the remote call features are not compatible with call-answer machines or voice-mail services, which also work by automatically answering your phone after so many rings. Actiontec tries to solve this glitch by including voice-mail software that saves messages on your PC hard drive. The software is so basic, though, that you can't even record a personalized greeting. Worse, the brusque generic greeting provided uses an obvious machine voice.

The VoSKY Call Center can do a couple of other tricks. It will forward incoming Skype calls to you when you're away–to any number you designate, including your mobile. If you try to make a remote Skype call and your contact isn't available, the device will watch the contact's status and as soon as the person is available, dial your call-forward number to alert you so you can make the call again.

Setting up the hardware was relatively simple. The software, however, did not install well on my main test system–in fact it didn't work properly and kept crashing. I later successfully installed it on a laptop, where it worked well. The quick-start guide provided clear instructions on how to configure the software.

Bottom line? Integrating Skype with regular phones and phone systems is a super idea. It makes the service easy to use even for technophobes. But if you have a voice-mail service, you'll either have to give it up and rely on this product's clearly inferior call-answer system or do without remote Skype calling, which is arguably the product's coolest feature. Not a good choice to have to make.