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Stroll out and touch someone

A cordless headset approach to the phone and the computer. Business Advisor hed: Stroll out and touch someone dek: a cordless headset approach to the phone and the computer. by Matt Lake

“Hi, I’m at the station.”

“What, you want a crustacean?”

Have you ever had one of those conversations? One where the line’s so bad or the background noise is so obtrusive that nothing the other party says gets through? I have. And according to the people on the other end of the phone, the noise in the background is usually something unspeakable emanating from my PC speakers. (Yes, I have an MP3 habit. So sue me.)

But my overamplified cacophony doesn’t project the most professional image–even if it sounds like perfectly acceptable Macedonian choral work to me. So up until recently, I’d reach for the Mute button before picking up the phone, but all too often I’d lose the caller to voice mail before my music faded into silence.

Take it with you

If any of this sounds familiar, take heart. I found a simple solution to the problem, a solution that has also freed me to walk around the office while talking on the phone. It’s the Logitech Cordless Telephone and PC Headset, and as its name suggests, it’s part telephony product and part PC accessory. It consists of three parts.

The first part is an over-the-head headset with a single earpiece and a hinged microphone that swings around so that the headset can be worn on either ear. The headset plugs into the second part–a wireless receiver designed to clip to the belt or fit in a jacket pocket–and it’s about the size of a cellular phone.This part sits on a base that’s wired to all the relevant parts of the equation–the phone and handset, the PC’s microphone and headphone sockets, and the utility power outlet. There are no drivers to install or any other elements to add–it is literally a plug-and-play device that’s equally at home with any audio-enabled computer.

Here’s how it works: When you enter the office, you put on the headset and clip the wireless receiver to your belt. Press the button on top of the receiver and it’s good to go for six straight hours between charges. The wireless receiver has two exposed electrodes and a rechargeable battery that’s charged while it sits in the base unit. The first time you charge it, it needs to sit for about 16 to 18 hours; after that, it tops up in about 12 hours. Of course, the NiMH battery can drain the charge if you leave it in the base unit during breaks, meetings, and other away time.

When you fire up your computer, the startup sound plays in your ear. If you tune to Internet radio stations or play CDs or MP3 files while you work, they too blast away in one of your ears. (If they blast too loud, there’s a volume control just above the headphone socket.)

Then when the phone rings, you pick up the handset and rest it on a cradle on the Logitech base unit. Immediately, the computer audio cuts off and you’re on the phone. Hang up the phone and you’re back to your tunes.

The wireless receiver scans across 10 separate channels at 900MHz to keep the signal clear; Logitech claims you can get up to 100 feet away from the base station and retain a clear connection. Our informal tests kept a pretty good signal up to two floors down from a home office and half a city block with a direct line-of-site from a ground-floor window. There was some interference on the line in both these experiments, but no communication was lost.

From the jumping-off point

The Logitech headset suits me just fine, but its over-the-head design doesn’t sit so well with the more luxuriantly coiffed workers in my office. Headset hair isn’t something I suffer from (any hair would be welcome at this stage), but to others, it’s about as unprofessional as, well, playing Macedonian choral music at the office. Fortunately, the Logitech Cordless PC and Telephone Headset System’s headset can be replaced with most mobile-phone headsets. It’s not too hard to find someone who loathes the ear-bud headphones that came with their cell phones, so if the headband-style headset Logitech provides doesn’t work, you can find someone to swap with. Or failing that, your local electronics outlet should have one for $20 or so.

But here’s where the adventure really begins. Once you’ve reached a comfort level with a cordless phone/PC headset, a whole new world of audio-visual computing opens up to you. I’ve always found the concept of voice command and Internet telephony very remote. During my desultory trials of both, I found that the headsets got in the way of my telephone work, and remote microphone and speakers were completely unsuitable for shared office work.

Armed with a combo PC/phone headset, both these obstacles disappeared. My first port of call: the voice command section of the Windows XP Plus Pack. I’d already gotten a copy of XP Plus for its MP3 conversion utility and groovy-looking 3D screensavers and Windows Media Player visualizations (further testament to my lack of professional demeanor in the office, I fear). Now it was time to bark commands like “Media Player, next track!” and “Media Player, exit.” This feature worked up to a point, though I frequently had to repeat myself.

In the interests of running a control experiment, I plugged in a direct-connection microphone in place of my wireless headset, and found that Windows XP ignored my barked orders just as often. Clearly, either the XP Plus Pack needs to beef up its voice-recognition technology, or I need to take elocution lessons. Either way, the technology itself doesn’t work for me, wireless headset or no.

Reach out and touch someone … for nothing

The next step was to mix this hardware convergence of PC and telephone technology with another convergence technology–voice-over IP. To do this, I signed up at Net2Phone for a free download version of its telephony package. Like all free stuff, Net2Phone CommCenter comes with built-in banner advertising and additional piggybacked software, such as CallWave’s Internet Answering Machine (which provides a voice mail box for phone lines tied up with Internet connections) and Gator’s Smart Online Companion price-comparison service. I didn’t ask for either program, so I immediately uninstalled both, quietly cursing Net2Phone under my breath for adding a new spin on spam.

Net2Phone itself, however, was a pleasant surprise, and it worked flawlessly with my cordless headset. The best part about the service is that you can make free five-minute phone calls to a regular telephone number over an Internet connection, and unlimited calls to other Net2Phone users. Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the down sides are pronounced. The most significant is the quality of the calls. I placed calls using several Internet connections, including a slow dial-up. At not-so-busy times of day over my cable Internet connection, the call quality was fine. But it did degrade at the times when my neighbors were clogging the shared pipe with their MP3 downloads and streaming radio play. But what do you want for nothing?

My Net2Phone conversation over a dial-up Internet connection was a mess of crackles and static. And I could swear I heard the person on the other end of the line tell me he wanted a crustacean.

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