Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Can a Computer App Help Cut Your Phone Bills?

WXPNews: Published by Sunbelt Software since 2001

Vol. 10, #13 - Mar 29, 2010 - Issue #423

 Can a Computer App Help Cut Your Phone Bills?

  1. Editor's Corner
    • Can a Computer App Help Cut Your Phone Bills?
    • Follow-up: Controlling the Technology
    • Quotes of the Week
  2. Cool Tools
    • Tools We Think You Shouldn't Be Without
  3. News, Hints, Tips and Tricks
    • WMWifiRouter is a lifesaver
    • Windows XP gets DirectX 11 goodness
    • Big boys battle it out on the mapping front
  4. How To: Using XP Features
    • How to take timed snapshots with your webcam
  5. XP Security News
    • All platforms and browsers are vulnerable to attack
  6. XP Question Corner
    • Disk Cleanup hangs
  7. XP Configuration and Troubleshooting
    • Can't open Help and Support Center in XP
  8. Fav Links
    • This Week's Links We Like. Tips, Hints And Fun Stuff
  9. Product of the Week
    • CyberScrub Privacy Suite: Completely Erase Evidence of All Internet/Computer Activity & Encrypt Data

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 Editor's Corner

Can a Computer App Help Cut Your Phone Bills?

We live in a world where technology makes it possible to be in touch with almost anybody in the world at almost any time - but sometimes we pay a big price for that ability. If Alexander Graham Bell knew how much some of us are shelling out for telephone service, he would be rolling over in his grave.

I have a friend who has two traditional land lines, at around $70 for basic lines, no bells and whistles like voicemail, long distance charges and fees/taxes not included. She and her husband also have iPhones, and their cell phone bill is over $100 before you tack on all the taxes and fees. And of course, when we're talking about phone service, we aren't talking about just a 5-10% sales tax as with most products and services you buy. The taxes and fees can add up to 30% to your cell phone bill. So they end up paying over $200 per month, or $2400 per year, for phone service. More if they make any significant long distance calls on the landlines.

Many people don't even know how much they're paying. To quote one person on a web board in answer to the question of how much you pay for cell service, "Umm .. I don't know. They just help themselves to my checking account every month. Thankfully, I currently do not live paycheck-to-paycheck as I have in the past, so I don't pay attention." This is the big danger of autopay plans - too many folks "just don't pay attention." But that's a different rant for a different day.

Back in 2004, we decided to reduce our phone bills by dumping the landlines and going with a VoIP plan. For the last six years, we've been paying $21.95 (plus taxes, federal universal service fee, emergency service fee, and administrative and compliance fee, for a total of around $30) for unlimited calling to over 35 countries with Lingo. We had it hooked up to our FiOS high speed Internet connection and reversed the house wiring so we could plug it into the wall and use any of the jacks throughout the house for the Lingo service. We also plugged in a cordless base station with high quality wireless phones so we could get calls wherever we wanted, including outside on the patio.

We were always very happy with the service - up until a few months ago. We started getting screeching noises in the background on the line. I tried all the troubleshooting methods I could think of: rebooting the ATA box, plugging a different phone in, plugging the phone directly into the box instead of going through the wall wiring, etc. but the noise was the same. I called Lingo's customer service where I went through the same procedures again for the service tech (whom I could barely understand due to the combination of the background screech, his accent and my own hearing problems). After a tiring half hour or more of that, and his promise to "do something" on his end, there was no change.

My theory is that the ATA hardware has gotten old and is failing. But the tech said he's "not authorized" to send me a new box. I wouldn't even mind paying a reasonable fee for a replacement, but I was never able to find out how to do that. So I've been investigating alternatives and right now I'm trying out Skype to see if it will work as our primary phone service. I had, of course, tested it in the past but saw it as more of a novelty than a viable option to replace the Lingo line. However, they have made quite a few improvements and I'm impressed with the call quality I'm getting with Skype now. Of course, it may be that I also have better sound equipment (sound card, microphone and speakers) than I did years ago when I first gave it a try, too.

I signed up for a Skype unlimited subscription, which costs an amazing $2.95 per month, or less if you pay quarterly or annually. You can call any phone, including mobiles, in the U.S. and Canada for that price. There's another plan for those who need to make international calls; it's $12.95. Of course, this only allows you to make outgoing calls. Now, I rather like the idea of having total control and not being bothered by incoming calls, but of course it's not always practical. So you can buy an additional plan (SkypeIn) with a phone number where others can call you. That costs $60 per year, which comes out to $5 per month. That means that for $8 per month or a little less, you can have complete outgoing and incoming phone service.

Okay, so what's the catch? The voice quality is good, but reliability may not be quite as rock solid as a POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) line or an ATA-based VoIP service like Lingo or Vonage. On the other hand, I have a cell phone that can serve as a backup.

You might ask why I don't just use the cell phone exclusively, as more and more people are doing (and as both of my kids have done). The problem is that it's significantly more expensive to do that. We have the minimum number of family plan minutes and plans with more minutes cost quite a bit more. We use the cell phones basically as emergency devices and for accessing email and web wherever we go. I don't want to have to worry about how long I'm talking when I'm on my phone at home. And if I need to make an international call, I certainly don't want to pay the outrageous rates the cell phone companies charge.

What about the Skype "experience?" One reason I shied away from it in the past was that I didn't want to have to be tethered to my computer to make a phone call. Now they make wireless Skype phones that you can carry around the house with you, so you don't have to be sitting in front of a computer screen when you have a conversation. I also tested it on my ultra-ultra compact Sony VAIO X laptop and it works great with the built-in microphone, although I did find the speakers a little weak. Sound quality was splendid when I plugged in my Shure earphones.

Of course, one big advantage of Skype is that "you can take it with you." Your Skype account will work with any computer on which you install the Skype client software, no matter where you are. That means your Skype number is portable, just like your cell phone number. You can do the same with any VoIP service, of course, but with Skype, you don't have to lug an ATA box around with you when you travel.

You can even install Skype on your mobile phone - if you have the right kind. Unfortunately Skype Mobile no longer supports Windows Mobile, although if you installed it in the past, you can still use it. You can get the full Skype Mobile for Blackberry and Android on Verizon. There is a Skype-to-Skype app for the iPhone but it only works over wi-fi, not 3G. There is also a Skype application for some Symbian phones that does work over 3G. I'm hoping Skype will make a version for Windows Phone 7 Series when it's released.

If you do have an iPhone and want to circumvent AT&T's voice charges, David Pogue just wrote about an app called Line2 that gives you a second phone number for $15 per month and doesn't use your AT&T minutes. And it can apparently place calls over the 3G network as well as wi-fi. You can read about it here:

There are a few things to be aware of if you're considering dropping your landline to move to VoIP or switching from a traditional VoIP line to a software-based service like Skype. Perhaps most important is to understand that unlike regular POTS lines, these services are dependent on your home's power lines. If you have a power outage, your phone service will be out, too - unless you have a UPS (which will provide power for a limited time) or generator to power the network hardware.

Further, these services are dependent on your Internet service so if you have an unreliable ISP, you might want to think twice before trusting your phone service to them. Additionally, 9-1-1 locator service may or may not work. VoIP services like Lingo and Vonage require you to provide them with an address to be provided to authorities if you dial 9-1-1, but it's not automatically detected as with POTS lines, so it's up to you to keep that information up to date. Skype doesn't work with 9-1-1 emergency services.

If you have a home security system that's monitored, it may be dependent on a landline. However, you can get systems that use their own dedicated cellular service. We switched over to this for our security system back when we dropped our landlines. Finally, call quality may vary (as it does with regular phones). Some of these drawbacks and caveats may be less important if you also maintain a cell phone that you can use as a backup.

Tell us what you think about all this. Do you still have one or more landlines, or have you "cut the cord?" Do you use a more traditional ATA-based VoIP service or a software-based VoIP service like Skype? Or do you use a cell phone as your only phone service? If you still pay for landlines, what's your reason? Is it because you want to be ensured of the most reliable service, the 9-1-1 service, voice quality, or some other reason? Have you tried alternatives? Is the cost savings worth it? What would make you switch? We invite you to discuss all of these questions on our forum at

Follow-up: Controlling the Technology

In last week's editorial, I discussed how dependent we've become on those who control the technology that controls our lives, whether that's something as minor as CATV service or as major as the vehicles we use to get around.

Cballinger brought up an issue that I didn't go into explicitly in the article, but one that has troubled me: the push to "put all your eggs in one basket" by getting your phone, CATV and Internet service from the same provider in a "bundled" package. As he pointed out, when you do that, it only takes one traffic accident or misconfiguration by a technician to cut you off from every connection you have to the outside world. That's one of the reasons I still use the cable company for TV, FiOS for Internet, and have a cell phone that's not dependent on those networks.

Tim G. made an interesting statement: "Many homes these days do not have dictionaries and encyclopedias in book form." That's something that never occurred to me, given my rooms full of books of all kinds - but when I think about it, I know it's almost certainly true. I love the convenience of being able to look things up online, but I would hate to know that I didn't have those books to back me up. Maybe it goes back to my days as a cop, but I am really big into always having a backup.

The discussion certainly veered off into some interesting directions, and while I try to resist expressing any strong political views here (I know there are occasions when I don't succeed), I enjoyed reading all of our readers' rants and as always, I thank all of you who participated, both in the forum and via email.

'Til next week,
Deb Shinder, Editor

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Quotes of the Week

"For disappearing acts, it's hard to beat what happens to the eight hours supposedly left after eight hours of sleep and eight of work". - Doug Larson

"Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself. It is the landmark of an authoritarian regime". - Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart

"No generalization is wholly true, not even this one". - Oliver Wendell Holmes

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  • New antivirus + antispyware engine with firewall
  • Advanced anti-rootkit technology
  • Cutting-edge Proactive Protection
  • Full email protection: Outlook and Windows Mail
  • Ideal for Netbooks that need malware protection
  • No automatic credit card charge each year!
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 Cool Tools

Tools We Think You Shouldn't Be Without


MediaWidget is the quickest and easiest way to transfer all of your music, videos, photos, podcasts, and more from your iPod to PC. Check out the cool Youtube demo and download the trial here:

Do you have programs you just can't seem to get rid of? Uninstaller! 2010 "ALL New" Version Just Released:

Shop online much? Billing address autofill, secure password storage, all automatic and safe. Not a little toolbar utility. Huge time-saver!

Moving to Windows 7 is Easy! PCMover moves programs, files, and settings from your old PC to your new PC

Search for a driver and you get a ton of Driver Software offers instead. But how do you know which one is good? Try Driver Genius 9.0. Free scan.

Why back up when you can sync? Simply replicate every piece of data to another drive in real-time. Set it and forget it.

Spellchecker is NOT ENOUGH! Improve your English writing skills with WhiteSmoke a smarter solution for high quality writing. Try it:

Get your speed back! Advanced Vista Optimizer will tweak Vista for Max performance. Easy to use:

 News, Hints, Tips and Tricks

WMWifiRouter is a lifesaver

Here's why I don't trust the cloud: today was Tom's birthday and we went out to lunch to celebrate. We came home to discover a not-so-great birthday present: our FiOS Internet connection was dead. It's been rock solid reliable for four years, but the "Fail" light on the outside box was burning brightly and tech support confirmed that it was a network failure and estimated it would be back up "by tomorrow." But I had plenty of work to get done today, like finishing this newsletter. And that requires an Internet connection to find the links in these sections. Ouch.

Here's what saved my behind: I have an unlimited data plan on my Verizon Windows Mobile 6.5 smart phone (Omnia II). I downloaded and installed WMWifiRouter on it, which allowed me to set up the phone as a wireless access point. Then I was able to connect my laptop to the phone's Internet connection. What a lifesaver. I downloaded the free trial but I'll be sending them my twenty bucks pronto. I'll also be writing about it in more detail in the future. Meanwhile, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, check it out here:

Windows XP gets DirectX 11 goodness

Want all the goodness of DirectX 11 but don't want to upgrade your operating system from Windows XP? Now you don't have to. ATI has released a new OpenGL driver that supports Vista and XP, so that you can get graphics close to the quality of DirectX 11 on your Windows XP computer. Read more here:

Big boys battle it out on the mapping front

I remember when Mapquest was the place to go if you wanted to find a map on the Internet, but I also remember how it led me astray more than once. Today Microsoft and Google are battling it out for the top dog spot when it comes to maps and the latest news is that Microsoft is teaming up with Foursquare, a location-awareness service that will be integrated into Bing maps as part of their spring update. Find out more here:

 How To: Using XP Features

How to take timed snapshots with your webcam

If you have a webcam set up on your Windows XP computer and you'd like for it to automatically take photos at timed intervals (for example, so you can see what's going in your office while you're gone), you can do it with a free PowerToy from Microsoft.
  1. Go to http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/downloads/powertoys/xppowertoys.mspx
  2. In the right column that lists the various PowerToys, scroll all the way to the bottom and click the link for Timershot.exe
  3. Click the Save button to save the file to your hard drive and pick a location where you want to save it.
  4. After the file has downloaded, double click it to run the setup program.
  5. Configure the Timershot settings to use your webcam device.
  6. Under "Picture Options," set the interval at which you want photos to be taken (for example, every 1 minutes).
  7. You can have the pictures automatically resized if you want, and specify a file name and location where you want the pictures to be saved.
  8. Click Apply Settings.

 XP Security News

All platforms and browsers are vulnerable to attack

Have you been thinking you should upgrade to Windows 7 because that will protect you from attacks? Have you heard that Macs can't be hacked or don't get viruses? Has someone told you that IE is insecure and you'll be safe if you just use Firefox? The recent Pwn2Own hacking contest in Vancouver taught us all a big lesson: all operating systems and all web browsers are vulnerable to attack. Security researchers quickly exploited an updated iPhone, a Macbook, a 64 bit Windows 7 system, and all of the popular web browsers. Read more about it here:

 XP Question Corner

Disk Cleanup hangs

I was trying to use the Disk Cleanup utility in XP to remove some of the clutter from my hard drive and get more space, but when it was compressing old files, it hung up and just stopped responding forever. I've tried this a couple of times (after a reboot) and it does the same thing. Do you know how to fix it or do I have to just stop trying to use this? - Elliot C.

This is actually a known problem and it happens when you have an incorrect entry in the registry that's used by Disk Cleanup to find compressed files. You can edit the registry yourself to fix this, or Microsoft has a "Fix it wizard" that you can run if you aren't comfortable manually editing the registry. You'll find it here, along with the step by step instructions for the manual edit:

 XP Configuration and Troubleshooting

Can't open Help and Support Center in XP

If you try to open the Help and Support Center in Windows XP and you get an error message that says Windows cannot find HELPCTR.EXE, you might have a corrupted or missing registry key. What to do? You'll need to edit the registry to fix the problem. You can find the step-by-step instructions for doing so in KB article 888018 at

 Fav Links

This Week's Links We Like. Tips, Hints And Fun Stuff

Disclaimer: WXPNews does not assume and cannot be responsible for any liability related to you clicking any of these linked Web sites.

 Product of the Week

CyberScrub Privacy Suite: Completely Erase Evidence of All Internet/Computer Activity & Encrypt Data

CyberScrub Privacy Suite removes all evidence of your online activity, erases data beyond recovery, secures your files with strong encryption and enhances overall system performance. This award winning app sports over 50 new features and enhancements. Did you realize every picture or video viewed is written to your hard drive? Simply opening an email can put you in a compromising situation. Privacy Suite eliminates all web tracks (pictures, video, history, websites visited, cache and temp files, IM, chat, email, etc.), automatically removes newsgroup pictures and binaries, eliminates traces from popular Peer2Peer applications, Real and Windows Media Player, Photoshop and more. You can even create your own customized areas to clean. Remember- "Delete" does not mean "Erase". Deleted files can be retrieved using simple recovery tools. 100% Windows 7 compatible Privacy Suite software supports Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3.x. Click below for other exciting New Features. Download the free trial and buy with a 20% discount to WXPNews subscribers.

 About WXPnews

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This newsletter and website and may contain links to other websites with whom we have a business relationship. Sunbelt Software does not review or screen these sites, and we are not responsible or liable for their privacy or data security practices, or the content of these sites. Additionally, if you register with any of these sites, any information that you provide in the process of registration, such as your email address, credit card number or other personally identifiable information, will be transferred to these sites. For these reasons, you should be careful to review any privacy and data security policies posted on any of these sites before providing information to them.

The user assumes the entire risk as to the accuracy and the use of this document. This document may be copied and distributed subject to the following conditions: 1) All text must be copied without modification and all pages must be included; 2) All copies must contain Sunbelt's copyright notice and any other notices provided therein; and 3) This document may not be distributed for profit. All trademarks acknowledged. Copyright Sunbelt Software, Inc. 1996-2010.

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