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ISP-In-A-Box: The $500 Mac mini (Skype = Free Phone Service)

No Mac mini would be complete without free local and long distance telephone service. Thanks to Skype, your prayers have been answered. You can call anyone in the world who also uses Skype and talk as long and as often as you like for free! You can also place conference calls to up to four other Skype users at a time anywhere in the world at no cost. And you can call plain old telephones (POTS) by dialing an existing area code (or country code) and phone number for about 2¢ a minute to most of your favorite places. There are no hidden charges! The complete rate table is here. For 30 euros or about $40 a year, Skype will provide you a real POTS phone number in the area code of your choice with free voice mail and free incoming calls. Then all your friends can call and irritate you whether they use Skype or not.

The key ingredient for Skype is you have to have some type of computer, and it has to be running the Skype software to place and receive calls. There are free versions of the Skype software to support Windows PCs, Macs, Linux, and Pocket PCs. You’ll also need a way to talk and listen on your phone calls. You can use either a microphone and speaker, or a Skype-compatible USB phone, or a Skype-compatible terminal adapter/router, or a Bluetooth or USB headset. Suffice it say, a new Skype-compatible phone solution is announced every week so do a little Googling if you don’t find what you want below.

Skype Alternatives for the Mac. Since the Mac mini doesn’t include a microphone or line input jack, you’ll need to add a microphone and a USB audio input device such as the iMic if you want to use the microphone/speaker approach on the mini. Hint: The Mac mini’s speaker leaves a lot to be desired. The better and cheapest solution on the Mac platform for U.S. users is the Plantronics Audio 45 USB Stereo Headset for about $30. The under $100 wireless solution in the U.S. is to purchase the Plantronics M3000 Bluetooth headset and the dLink DBT-120 USB Bluetooth adapter for your Mac, if it didn’t come with Bluetooth. Once you get the dLink adapter or, if you have Apple’s internal adapter, you’ll need to upgrade the firmware in order to use the headset. Note that this only works for the Mac’s bluetooth adapter and more recent dLink adapters! Just download the 1.2 Bluetooth Firmware here and install it. We’ve had mixed results with the bluetooth headset. If Skype were my only phone service, I’d recommend the USB headset on the Mac platform. [Footnote: Tiger totally resolves the Skype bluetooth headset problems.]

Skype Alternatives for Windows Users. For Windows users, there is the IPMate S90, a $50 router that allows you to use your regular telephones with your PC and Skype. While the S90 is a Windows-only solution, if you have an old clunker Windows machine sitting around, here’s a way to put it to good use. Other Windows-only solutions are the rapidBox and the VTA1000 Skype and SIP Gateway for $59.

European Alternatives. For our European friends, the easiest solution is the cordless DU@LPhone. In addition, the $60 USB Cyberphone K is available directly from Skype; however, the dialing keypad does not yet work with Macs. [See the comments for another great European alternative.]

USB Phone Alternative. Finally, an untested, but promising, USB phone which it is claimed works on both the Mac and Windows platforms for about $60 including shipping is the Dontronics USB phone made in Australia. Let’s us hear from you if you get one.

Installing and Using Skype. Skype is one of the easiest software packages you’ll ever install. Just download the latest version from here for your chosen operating system and follow the prompts. You’ll need to set up a Skype username and password as part of the installation process and, if you want to be able to call regular telephones, you’ll need to put a little money in your SkypeOut account on the Skype web site. Configuration is equally painless. Run the application and choose Skype->Preferences. Review the settings and make any adjustments desired. Most of the defaults are fine. Under the Audio tab, select your input and output devices, and you’re ready to make your first call. If you’re calling another Skype user, just enter their username and click Call. If you’re calling a POTS number in the U.S., enter +1 and then the area code and number and click Call. Test your Skype service by calling echo123.

Once everything appears to be working, feel free to try out your system by giving us a call if you speak English. Our Skype account name is wardmundy, or you can reach us through our Washington, D.C. phone number: +1-202-470-1646. Don’t forget the plus sign. Skype is picky about it. If the voice mail system answers (that also is available through Skype), leave a message together with your name, where you’re calling from with the time zone and the best time to return your call, and, of course, your Skype name. We return our calls, but it may take us a bit of time depending upon nerd volume. Final note: This is not a tech support service. If you need technical assistance, call a friend or former friend. You can’t afford us. Enjoy!

For another approach to free phone service, read our latest article on SIP telephony options.

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  1. Some time ago Siemens has announced their Skype compatible USB/DECT stick that works together with their latest wireless phones. Although basic functionality is supported on Mac, advanced functions (copying address books from phone to computer and back – to name just one) is Windows only. STill very nice product that integrates Skype with normal wireless setup at home or small office. Price in Europe is somewhere around ???Ǭ?Ǩ??ɂ?ɬ??Ǭ?Ǭ130. Works nicely!

    [WM: Thanks for reminding me. Here’s a link to the phone and here’s the Skype adapter.]

  2. CyberGuys sells headphones with microphones built-in for less than $5. I purchased a pair last week and was surprised at the quality. But, I had to take a chance.

    [WM: These aren’t USB, but for a machine other than the Mac mini, looks like a good deal.]

  3. I’ve been using a cheap usb headset (from Plantronics) and find it works well other than being a bit uncomfortable. I’d love to have a conventional handset with a usb plug.

    I also have dLink DBT-120 that pairs to my Motorola 820 bluetooth headset. Quality is not good and I frequently have to restart the connection. The idea is nice, but it just doesn’t work well for me.

  4. For those upgrading to Mac OS X Tiger, the Plantronics M3000 bluetooth headset (that was problematic on the Panther platform) now performs flawlessly and sounds as good as any other telephone on the planet.

  5. I’ve bought two different versions of the USB phones listed on Phoneskype.com off of ebay. They look like the Australian phone mentioned above and for $20-30 a piece, they work flawlessly on the Mini running Tiger. Search by model numbers from the Web site on ebay.

  6. I just wanted to let everyone know that after reading the post and wanting to do this, I tried out the plantronics 2500 and everything worked. I have a Powerbook G4 running the latest version of Tiger as of this date. I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t work because of some wierdness with Apple and the bluetooth updates, but as my bluetooth is internal I didn’t have any issues. Following the instructions from this post I got my headset to work great with Skype – very clear and good range. I also could use the headset with my Nokia N70, a nice bonus that helped make the money even more worth it rather than buying a Skype only handset.

  7. I took a chance and bought one of those little plastic translucent USB Audio Adapters (Model PD552) off of eBay for less than $8 shipped (device was only $1.49). The mic input, however, is only 24 kHz on the mini – why no better, I have no idea. That said, it is fine for Skype but not for podcasting or Garage Band. Also the output sounds a little "hot" for my taste, so I just use the mini’s built in audio out.

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