January - 2002
Technical Evaluations Reports
4. Internet Audio Products
Duane Weaver, Deborah Guspie, Nolan
Cox, and Jon Baggaley
Master of Distance Education Program
Athabasca University – Canada's Open University
Online audio methods have evolved as a means of providing unlimited and inexpensive/free international audio communication. They are becoming popular in distance education (DE) as an alternative to the asynchronous conferencing methods (Report 3 in this series). Current types of Internet audio connectivity provide: (a) direct between individuals (Internet phone); (b) shared places or forums on the Internet where groups can meet (audio-conferencing); and (c) a variety of PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone methods. However, products differ in terms of lag time, delay, quality of voice, and stability of service and connection. The report compares current online audio packages in terms of their technical features and reliability.
Trials of Free Products
Few online audio products contain audio features only. Fully featured products
include applications for administering conferences and for reinforcing their
value – e.g., integration of email, file sharing, and file transfer; simultaneous
text chat, instant messaging (for one-to-one communication), whiteboard, and
Web searches/ tours (i.e., the ability of a user to take control of the other
users' browsers in order to demonstrate webpages). Eight online applications
were reviewed (September to December 2001) in their most up-to-date versions.
Emphasis was placed upon whether or not each provided the collaborative features
found to be useful by the needs assessment study (see Report
2 in this series). All of the products were tested at least twice with the
same configurations of equipment, connection, and users, so as to increase test-retest
- Groove: (see also Report
2 in this series). This integrated package of collaborative tools includes
good quality audio-conferencing, and the greatest variety of educational support
tools in this series of products: a simple and intuitive file-sharing facility;
several whiteboards; a notepad; email integration; and a useful tool for tracking
actions and messages. The application is designed as a series of webpages
rather than in the telephone handset format favoured by some other products.
It would be improved with more tools enabling ease of connection between users.
At the time of testing, contacting other users involved emailing to invitations
to a Groove "room." No indication was available of whether or not the
other users were online or had received the invitation. The only online status
indicators were in the chat room mode. The product was subject to audio delays
and interference sounds in the push-to-talk mode. Subsequent tests will determine
whether these problems persist.
- ICQ: is a popular communication tool for one-to-one (rather
than conferencing) communication. It serves one of the largest online active
communities and has strong commercial viability. The product features high-quality
audio; multi-party text chat; PC-to-phone connectivity (for a fee); a good
search directory; and efficient online status indicators in its various modes.
It integrates well with email, and makes effective use of emoticons (e.g.,
smile icons J). Its other educational application features are limited to
text chat, email, and file transfer. Its usage is fairly straightforward,
with a basic and advanced mode, and a comprehensive online tutorial. Its more
sophisticated features require practice and guidance by an experienced user.
Occasional server problems cause inconsistent delivery of text messaging.
With the addition of whiteboards and multi-party voice conferencing, the product
could be without equal for DE users.
- NetMeeting: is a popular Microsoft PC-to-PC conferencing product,
integrated into many versions of Windows. It has high-quality audio for a
limited number of users, video connectivity in some of its modes, and a good
array of educational support tools: e.g., file transfer, and whiteboard. Occasional
delays occur in the audio transmission. The product's connection procedures
are relatively complex, requiring users to know one another's Internet protocol
(IP) addresses in order to make contact. As most users with dial-up and cable
modem connections have a different IP address each time they log-on, the creation
of a call or conference requires time-consuming advance coordination by other
means (e.g., email). Not all sharing features work consistently: our tests
noted the occasional failure of various features, whether because of user
error or infrastructure failure.
- Net2Phone: is a hybrid IP Audio tool that facilitates discounted
long-distance calling by allowing a computer to connect with a telephone on
the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). The tool has an intuitive, user-friendly
interface and its operation requires little technical skill. A problem with
the application is that the necessary phone lines are not always available.
The party initiating the call (the PC user) is billed for the call whether
or not it remains connected. Gaps in audio transmission, and overlaps between
the audio contributions can create confusion, particularly for the receiving
party at the phone end of the connection.
- PalTalk: is one of the easier to load and learn products,
with a compact 1 MB download, high-quality audio, and an online support service.
One's online contacts (pals) are clearly listed, and indications of whether
or not they are currently online/ online but unavailable, etc. Adding names/
pseudonyms to the contacts list is a simple process. Optional one-to-one and
group connections are provided, with no apparent limit to the number of simultaneous
users in the conferencing mode. Occasional loss of transmission is noted and
problems of audio clarity, articulation, and lag. The product contains simultaneous
text-chat and webcam video features, though is otherwise a bare-bones audio
product. Its educational value would be improved with the addition of, for
example, a whiteboard, file transfer, Web-tour, and email integration facilities.
The product is free-of-charge with banner advertising, though this can be
removed for an annual fee (approximately US $10.00) or with pop-up display
- Roger Wilco: is a popular communications tool among online
gaming enthusiasts. It provides high-quality audio in a simulated walkie-talkie
mode. Multi-party connections are available in push-to-talk mode only. The
product does not feature online status indicators or search directories, and
to join in a conference each user has to enter the IP address of the person
hosting it (see the problems reported in the NetMeeting section). The
product's text chat, email, and file transfer are useful as educational support,
and it makes effective use of emoticons. Occasional interference with other
programs is observed, and use of the product is not recommended while ICQ
- Yahoo Messenger: This is a good product for two or more persons,
fairly user-friendly, and with very good audio quality. Connecting with other
users is straightforward. When others are speaking their names and an icon
appears next to the audio-level meters. The hands-free option works well.
Currently, the product's only tools with particular educational value are
text chat and file transfer. Other features include emoticon faces, different
font options, instant messaging, a calendar, and an overview page. Non-educational
features include: news, stocks, and sports information. A disadvantage of
the product is that users must become Yahoo members (no fee), using
a Yahoo password. Also, the disk storage required to operate the
product is almost 4 MB compared with, for example, 1 MB for PalTalk.
- 4ecalls: is a hybrid PC-to-Phone technology (like Net2Phone)
that enables a PC to place calls on the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network).
One of its current advantages is the low calling rates: e.g., three cents
within N. America and France; four cents to Australia and the UK, and five
cents to Brazil. The tool uses a downloaded dialer at the PC end of the connection.
As with other PC-to-Phone technologies, the audio is clearer for the PC user
than for the telephone user. Delays in transmission can interfere with the
receiver's audio. At the time of testing, this product was undergoing a server
upgrade, and its reliability was low. Prior to the upgrade, the evaluation
team was able to place calls successfully once or twice in every five attempts.
N.B. Three other audio products (HearMe, FireTalk and
Talk City), were also tested by the CDE's evaluation team. Since then,
Talk City's audio and download support appear to have been discontinued,
leaving only its text chat mode in operation. FireTalk and HearMe
were discontinued earlier in 2001. FireTalk had offered the most efficient
and sophisticated of all online audio services of which we are currently aware,
and had become the de facto standard for synchronous audio communication in
the CDE's graduate program, with regularly scheduled international seminars
and events. The evaluations contained in this report and Report
2 of the current series have led the CDE to adopt PalTalk as its
In comparing the features of the different online audio products, the CDE has
selected PalTalk as its current standard. Frequent changes of software would
be problematic for both students and teaching faculty, involving time-consuming
coordination and re-learning. As some users have access to limited disk space,
there are advantages to using stand-alone products such as PalTalk, and complementing
them with other non-integrated products: e.g., the file-sharing facilities of
Stuffincommon (see Report
2 in this series). Most products restrict audio contributions to one person
to speak at a time, which is useful in most conferencing situations though requires
moderation by a facilitator with technical experience of the product. Current
problems common to many online audio applications are their platform dependency
(e.g., PC as opposed to Mac), and the lack of technical infrastructure provided
for them by educational institutions. Institutional firewalls and bandwidth
limitations often prevent their use altogether, forcing DE teachers to conduct
their classes from home! DE providers will need to deal with these issues as
student demand for online audio communication increases.
report in this series will review online course management systems.
N.B. Owing to the speed with which Web addresses become outdated,
online references are not cited in these summary reports. They are available,
together with updates to the current report, at the Athabasca University software
Italicised product names in this report can be assumed to be registered trademarks.
JPB. Series Editor, Technical Evaluation Reports.