While cutting-edge technologies certainly have their allure, there's something to be said for basic products that just work well. Case in point: NetZero's new VoIP
service, called simply NetZero Voice. The service lacks many bells and whistles found on its rivals, including videoconferencing and avatars
, but in terms of core call quality, NetZero Voice is one of the best we've tested recently. And it's not without its perks, including free PC-to-PC calls, voicemail, instant messaging, and an e-mail account with 1GB of storage. For those who value call quality above all else, NetZero Voice is an excellent choice; users who are willing to forgo a bit of the call quality in favor of more advanced features should check out Skype
. Anyone who is looking for a full-service landline replacement service (and those who want to make VoIP calls using a regular phone instead of through a PC) should check out a service such as Vonage
NetZero Voice is available in a number of flavors. The free, baseline version provides no-cost, computer-to-computer calling between NetZero Voice users. (This is the same model used by Skype.) If you'll need to use the service to call landline or cell phones, you must purchase one of NetZero's for-pay choices, which start with a pay-as-you go option, appropriately called NetZero Voice Pay-As-You-Go, that lets you add credit to your account in $5, $10, and $20 increments. (Skype calls its similar service SkypeOut.) You may then use this credit to call cell phones and landlines in hundreds of countries, each of which has been assigned a competitive per-minute rate
There are also two monthly plans. NetZero Voice 100 costs $3.95 per month and includes 100 PC-to-analog minutes when calling analog phones located anywhere in the United States, Canada, or Puerto Rico. The top-shelf option, NetZero Voice Unlimited, sells for $14.95 per month and includes unlimited analog calls to the aforementioned areas. With the two monthly plans, call fees to cell phones and landlines outside of these areas are subject to the same per-minute rates as those associated with the pay-as-you-go plan. The Voice 100 and Voice Unlimited plans also give you a personal telephone number, with your choice of area codes, at which you receive incoming calls on your computer. With both plans, incoming calls from telephones are unlimited.
The NetZero Voice setup process is no more difficult than downloading, installing, and configuring a simple software program. After choosing your service plan, you download the Voice application from NetZero's Web site, then install its drivers and dashboard control interface on your PC. A brief but handy configuration wizard subsequently pops up, helping you test whichever headphone and microphone devices you'll use (the service doesn't yet support accessories such as the Actiontec Phone Wizard
, which lets you make VoIP calls through your landline handset). Note that NetZero Voice works over dial-up Internet connections (most VoIP services require broadband), which is a boon for anyone who hasn't made the switch to an always-on Internet connection.
Once you've spent the mere few minutes it takes to complete the NetZero Voice setup, you're ready to launch its dashboard and begin making calls. Compared to the showy dashboards of other VoIP providers, such as Yak WorldCity
, NetZero's is fairly utilitarian. Its design consists of a basic rectangular window, within which all of the service's salient features are easily accessible, including a big, virtual numeric keypad; a convenient call timer; and a drop-down list of called numbers. The window is also your entrée to the service's call forwarding, call waiting, call blocking, and instant-messaging capabilities. In addition, you can use the utility to import contacts from Outlook and other programs, as well as link out to your 1GB voicemailbox on NetZero's Web site, which doubles as an e-mailbox. We found the straightforward interface easy to navigate but also detected a few obvious omissions. For example, the utility has only one headphone/speaker volume control, instead of the typical two controls for both your microphone and headphone/speaker. Unless you sign up for one of the monthly calling plans, you can't use three-way calling and you're relegated to contacting only one person at a time. Nor can you create or store contact groups in your address book; rather, you can save only single contact names.
Hands down, NetZero Voice offers some of the best call quality we've experienced recently in a VoIP service. In our anecdotal tests of PC-to-PC calls, connections for both parties sounded superb, with none of the typical VoIP problems, such as latency, chop, and distortion. CNET Labs' tests of computer-to-analog calls resulted in excellent connections that sounded as if they were happening between two landlines--the only difference being an extremely faint background hum that both callers occasionally detected, which sounded like putting your ear to a seashell and hearing far-off waves. The noise was nowhere near loud or frequent enough, however, to make us call it a bona fide problem. The only faint hints of real issues occurred when we uploaded and downloaded data, with both sides getting a little feedback and the analog caller hearing a slight clang.
NetZero adheres to the status quo in VoIP service and support, providing users with free advice via e-mail. The company made good on its claim to respond to e-mail inquiries within 24 hours, sending us a reply before that period was up. At the time of this writing, NetZero was also offering no-cost phone support through its toll-free number, but only for a limited time.