By Stephanie Gwee
WITH Internet phone calls, people can reach a loved one working or studying overseas in next to no time - and for next to nothing.
Or, in Skype's case, nothing.
That is a world of difference compared to paying $30 for a snatched five-minute conversation as you watch the clock to save pennies.
The good news is that more of such applications have morphed into every global caller's best friend as they let people make cheap international calls via the Net. Google Talk, iChat and Jajah are but three.
Simply power up any of these sites on your computer, type in the contact number of the recipient, and you'll hear your loved one - in less than three minutes or so.
It's no surprise then that Skype is a godsend for 24-year-old teacher Jaime Koh, who used it to have hour-long conversations with her American fiance.
Said Jaime: "I felt that Skype brought our relationship closer as I could constantly tune in to what he was doing or feeling. Also, I could call to wish him happy birthday, instead of just sending him a cold SMS."
Here are other ways to ring cheap.
Software based service
Jajah.com must be doing something right for it to snag more than 10 million users in less than two years.
Its winning formula: Unbelievably cheap rates and ultra ease of use.
For one, Jajah lets you save up to 98 per cent on your international phone bill. And you don't need to sign up for any contract, download any software, or buy a special headset before using it.
Armed with your phone, you first dial a toll number for your overseas contact. Say, you want to ring a friend in Melbourne. First, punch in 03-90015600, which is the official toll number for Australia. Next, key in the number of your friend.
After this, you'll receive an SMS note with a local phone number for the person you just called. Save this number in your address book and call the contact using this number directly from your phone.
Using this method, a call to Melbourne costs only 3.6 US cents (5 Singapore cents) per minute compared to 28 cents on a standard line.
When I called a friend in Australia using Jajah, the call was crisp and crystal clear and it did not have any static or distortions.
Setting up my Jajah account was also pain-free - I managed to call my friend in just two minutes.
You know that SightSpeed has got it going when industry experts label it as one of the few Internet telephony sites that can truly knock Skype off its perch.
And it's no surprise either. SightSpeed has been in the Internet communications business since early 2000, way before the word Skype weaselled its way into webtionaries.
Impressively, the current SightSpeed version lets users do real-time video recording as well as five-person conference calls without any time lag. It also lets you make overseas calls via the PC.
Simply register for a SightSpeed account and install SightSpeed in your PC. Then, launch its application, enter the number and start yakking.
Each phone call is as low as 2.3 cents per minute.
Dialling Britain, for example, was a breeze and the sound quality was great. My friend sounded as if she was in the same room as I.
Only gripe? You'll need to get an external headset or microphone to use this application.
Windows Live Messenger
Everybody's favourite instant messaging tool has gone the extra mile to nab new fans. Its free-of-charge Internet PC-to-PC calling aid has already got the thumbs-up from its users.
On the Actions toolbar, click on the Call A Contact's Computer icon. Next, select the recipient whom you wish to call. Click Dial. You should be able to hear the dialling tone.
The entire process took less than a minute to set up and I could hear my friend's voice in no time.
Best of all? The calls are all free of charge.
Only thing that mars this voice calling tool is sound quality - there were distortions galore.
Its minimalistic look and feel reeks of all things Google. But what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in features.
For one, downloading the Google Talk application was really easy: The step-by-step instructions were super simple to follow. At 1.53MB, the file size was also small enough to be downloaded at the snap of the finger.
Sound quality wasn't that stunning though. There was static when I used it to dial my friend's computer, and the dial-up time took more than two minutes. Yawn.
Its saving grace? Google Talk is completely free. Penny-wise Singaporeans will dig it.
It also works with applications like Adium or iChat, so Apple aficionados can reap the benefits as well.
All Mac heads stand up! The iChat application on your pristine white computers come packed with international PC-to-PC calling applications.
And there's no worry about poor voice quality. iChat uses the AAC-LD audio codec, which is known for producing crystal clear audio.
And Apple lives up to its promise - my PC-to-PC voice conversation was not only static-free, it streamed smoothly as well.
If you want to store the sweet-nothings of your loved one, note that you can also save your audio chats using iChat recording.
Before the recording starts, iChat notifies your chat buddy and asks for his green light to record the conversation.
When you're done chatting, iChat stores that conversation as AAC files, so you can play them in iTunes or QuickTime whenever you want to hear his voice.
International dialling numbers
IF HAVING hour-long conversations in front of the computer doesn't appeal to you, check out the range of international dialling numbers that are available.
Popular services include the Zone 1511, Sunpage IDD 1521 and Phoenix Communication 1516 IDD service.
Simply log on to the websites of these services, fill up the application form, and you'll be able to start using their IDD service. Zone 1511's service, for example, can be found at www.zone1511.com.sg
To start dialling international digits, just key in the service's four-number digits before the entering the recipient's phone number.
So, if you are using Zone 1511, you would have to key in 1511 before punching in your friend's number. Similarly, key in 1521 for Sunpage.
Using this method, a call to Australia would cost about 10 cents per minute, as compared to the 28 cents that you would have to fork out if you dialled using a regular landline.
When I tried using the Zone 1511 service to ring Holland, the call sounded slightly hollow and I could hear some distortions and static.
However, connection was speedy - it took less than a minute before I heard the dialling tone.
Sunpage's IDD 1521 service, on the other hand, boasted good sound: There were no audible echoes or distortions.
But the creme de la creme was the Phoenix 1516 service. Sign-up was snappy and painless, and the voice quality was razor sharp. I also didn't have to wait long to hear the dialling tone.
Pre-paid phone cards
PAYPHONES are dead? Think again. Go to any foreign worker haunt in Singapore and the amount of advertising for payphone services will astound. Thai, Myanmar, Hindi - the ads are tailored in the language of these foreign workers.
With pre-paid phone cards, everything is dead simple. No registration. No set up. Never mind a PC, you don't even need your own phone!
Two flavours are available. Chipcards, which can be used only on phones equipped to read the embedded chip. Scratch cards, in contrast, contain a PIN which can used on any type of phone.
It costs only 8.5 cents a minute for the scratch card. Not the cheapest but it involves the least hassle.
"I don't need to subscribe to a phone plan, and I am only charged for the amount of time that I use," said 31-year-old Filipino domestic worker Jasmine Argapao who swears by StarHub calling cards.
The StarHub HomeConnect Card wins hands down for cost. But over the phone, the voice of my friend in Thailand lacked her usual punch, though it was clear.
I used the cheapest "Special Promotions" plan. HomeConnect offers two higher plans: IDD 018 and IDD 008. The low-level white noise during pauses in the conversation didn't affect clarity. Also, it took more than 10 seconds before I got a connection. Standard phone charges apply.
Using a toll-free number on the SingTel Hello! Card, connection was immediate. The rates are higher but my Thailand friend sounded like she was in Singapore, bright and totally clear.
One more tip: Buy the cards from your heartland mom-and-pop shop. I got 50 cents off on both the $10 cards I bought.
Additional reporting by Tan Chong Yaw
This article was first published in The Straits Times, Digital Life on 10 June 2008.