By Dustin Sklavos
Google Voice and Skype both have means of handling video chat within their networks, but that's not what we're after here. What we're after is something a bit newer and more exciting: internet-to-phone calling. Once you set up an account with either service, you're able to make phone calls from your computer, using your speakers and microphone. Since notebooks have been shipping with integrated microphones (and webcams) for so long, they've become uniquely ideal for this kind of service. The advent of netbooks and cheap ultraportables only increases the momentum, since you can pretty much just flip your computer open and have a conversation with someone. I remember watching stuff like this on Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was a kid.
The key difference between Google Voice and Skype is that Skype requires a client while Google Voice just requires a plug-in for your browser, not coincidentally the same plug-in required for video chat through Gtalk. Signing up for either is fairly painless...except the Google Voice sign-up is actually fairly intimidating.
With Google, everything ties into a single account: your Gmail, Gtalk, YouTube, all handled by a single login that now extends to Google Voice. Very convenient. But when you sign up for Voice, there's a step that I wasn't actually sure what to do with: you choose a phone number. A regular, ten digit phone number. This seems small, but it threw me for a loop because I just wasn't expecting that level of integration. It felt like something you should have to pay for, but it's actually just the first step.
Skype on the other hand just required downloading a client and creating an account on their service, no phone number required and none given. Skype 5 is a fairly lightweight client and it's easy to see how Skype has done as well as they have.
Whether you prefer a client or a web plug-in is going to be a matter of taste, but I will say that getting up and running with Skype is a lot easier. For Google Voice, you need to install that plug-in, but there's no step for that. You sign up for an account and it kicks you to the Google Voice homepage. I had to sift through a couple of help documents to realize I needed that plug-in, and even after that I found if I wanted to actually call anyone I'd have to do it through my Gmail homescreen: the Google Voice page just didn't seem to work.
Skype also walked you through configuring your speakers, microphone, and webcam before unleashing you onto an unsuspecting populace. With Google Voice, because of how it's integrated with Gmail, you have to use the same configuration screen you'd use for video chat. Once you get there it's simple and easy to use, but it feels like the Google Voice experience could've been heavily streamlined and made more user friendly.
For testing I used the built-in microphone and speakers on my ThinkPad X100e, and I left it on the wireless network instead of using a corded connection. I figured adding a little extra latency couldn't hurt, since this seems like the method most people will be using to communicate over these services. As a point of comparison, I have a BlackBerry Curve 8330 (I told you I was behind the times) on Sprint. My calls were made to my mother's BlackBerry; she's on Verizon and lives out in North Dakota (I'm in California.)
The first service I tested was Google Voice. It's actually much easier to use from your Gmail homescreen than from the Google Voice screen; you just click "Call phone" and a numeric keypad comes up in the bottom right of the screen. Type in the phone number and hit enter, and it places the call, and you hear it. At this point I was impressed: call quality was fantastic. My mother's voice was exceptionally clear even through my crappy laptop speakers, and she could understand me just as well through my crappy laptop microphone. It just worked, and it worked very well.
Next I tested Skype. On Skype, you just click the "Call phones" button on the bottom left of the window and a large keypad comes up. Enter the number, click Call, and you're good. Unfortunately, Skype didn't bode anywhere near as well as Google Voice. One of the first things my mother said, entirely of her own volition, was "oh, this sounds much worse." She described my voice as being loud and tinny, and in fairness she didn't sound all that great either.
Finally, as a reference point I called her from my BlackBerry. Sound quality there was middle of the road: not as good as Google Voice, not as bad as Skype. I was easier to understand, but the speaker in a phone just isn't going to compare to even middling laptop speakers. The best calling experience wound up being through Google Voice, although if you're a pacer like I am, having to sit there and talk on your computer may be difficult.
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