In our column each week we will offer solutions to your personal computer problems. We welcome your questions, no matter how challenging.
Q: I share one line for my computer's dial-up modem and telephone. What options do I have with software or hardware to let the phone ring through when online? Can I do it inexpensively or for free?
A: None of the options for dial up "shared line" instances are perfect. And free just isn't around anymore unless you are an experienced telecommunications hacker. There are, however, some solutions worth considering.
Call Forwarding lets you keep surfing while people call you. These types of services support features such as automatic forwarding of calls to a voice mail box and immediate playback of voice mail messages.
CallWave is a typical call forwarding program. You will need the "Call Forwarding On Busy" service from your phone company along with the CallWave software. CallWave's small setup charge and monthly charge from your phone company are the only costs. CallWave covers its cost through advertising that appears in a small window while you're online. Find the product at www.callwave.com.
BuzMe is another no cost, advertiser-supported service with a few more options. You can send the incoming call to voice mail, take the call, reject it or type a reply that your caller can hear, thanks to BuzMe's natural-sounding text-to-speech conversion. You retrieve your messages through either your PC or by phone. Check it out at www.buzme.com.
Call Catcher from Pagoo is similar to BuzMe. Cost is $3.95 a month with a 30-day free trial. Call Catcher features a message screen that displays dates and times. It also offers message forwarding. Surf to www.pagoo.com for more details.
ArtMedia Internet Line Share lets you maintain your Internet link and receive phone calls at the same time. It alerts you of an incoming call while you are connected. This does require Call Waiting, however. There is a limited time promotional offer of $49 (retail $79) including the LineManager Download Line Share software.
Internet Call Manager 2000 is a service and software program bundle offering a pretty good solution. For Mac users this is one of the few such products available. ICM offers several options for handling a call while you are online. You can answer it by terminating your session, send the call to ICM's voicemail service, or transfer it to another number. ICM uses a Web page to display a list of messages along with caller ID information and the time and date of each call. The calls are stored in a highly compressed audio format. It uses Busy Call Forwarding to reroute a caller to ICM's own number. This requires Busy Call Forwarding from your phone company, which may cost about $3.50 or more each month depending on your provider. ICM's basic plan lets you play messages, take voice mail, or ignore calls for $5.95 per month. Download the trial software at www.internetcallmanager.com.
HotCall is an easily installed peripheral requiring no software. It does, however, require Call Waiting from your phone company. When your computer modem is connected to the telephone line, HotCall will alert you to an incoming phone call. If you want to take the call, simply pick up the phone receiver and HotCall interrupts the modem connection. If your call is short it may be possible to maintain your modem connection. HotCall is priced around $49.99 at CompUSA.
Another option is a Call Waiting Switch (CWS). This hardware solution has two key advantages: you can talk to the caller briefly without dropping your Internet connection, and there are extra features such as incoming fax calls and caller ID. It does require call waiting on your phone, however.
A CWS will signal you through your sound card and by LED. With your phone attached to a CWS you can answer and talk for about 30 seconds without dropping your Internet connection. Other options include automatic disconnect of your online session while the phone rings, ringing the phone on a call-by-call basis, or ignoring the call all together. Although a CWS doesn't offer a voice mailbox, it's a good alternative if you want to answer calls right away. Computer Peripheral Systems offers a Call Waiting Switch (about $99) on their web site at www.cpscom.com.
Actiontec's call waiting modems let you answer the phone and speak briefly (about seven seconds) without losing your connection. While that isn't much time,the seven-second period allows you to find out who's calling. There are three versions of these modems for your PC: PCI-based internal (under $85), external for use with serial ports (under $85), and eExternal for use with USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports and Windows 98 or higher (under $100). Late-model notebooks will support the USB version. Actiontec can be found online at www.actiontec.com.
The best solution, albeit not the cheapest, is to move up to DSL. No more single phone line dilemma since DSL and phone calls use the same wire without interference. However, as we have been hearing in the news, DSL service isn't available to everyone and usually requires long wait times for installation.
Products mentioned in this column are offered as possible solutions to specific problems. Neither the author nor this newspaper endorses the products or their manufacturers.
Randall Hull is a Los Altos resident and Owner/Creative Director of The Br@nd Ranch, an advertising and marketing agency serving technology companies.