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Stay In Touch
Without touching your wallet

A Voice is worth a thousand emails
If you're like me, you have friends and family all over the country, and maybe the world. Email has made it so much easier to stay in touch, as has Instant Message programs, like AIM or iChat. But those words on a screen don't let you hear your mother laugh, or your nephew scream his head off. When you want to feel really close, try audio chatting. It's free, and you can do it using dial-up or any other connection.

What is audio chatting?
Audio chatting is a way to use the Internet to transmit voices in order to have a conversation. Because it goes through the Internet, you can call from your computer to another computer for free, whether it's next door or across the planet.

You may have heard of some ways to talk over the Internet that cost a little money. That's because they allow you to use the Internet to call an actual phone on the other end, rather than a computer. Those plans are usually cheaper than Ma Bell and, of course, don't require both talkers to be at their computers.

But for now, let's stick to the totally free method. You're on your computer and you talk, for free, with your friend on his computer. The sound quality is often excellent, and if you like to talk, those free minutes can really add up.

What you need
To get started, you need a way to hear your friend, a way to talk to your friend, and a program to make it all work together.

If your computer has a built-in microphone, then you can just plug in headphones to listen with, and you're ready to go. In fact, you don't even need headphones. Your computer's speakers usually work fine, though I often prefer headphones to eliminate the occasional feedback.

If you've decided that you really like audio chatting, you might try a headset with a microphone attached. They're not expensive and a lot of people like them for their convenience. (Here's a list choices.)

Finally, you need a chat program. In most cases, both you and your chatting partner need to be using the same program. Since they're almost all free, just decide which one to go with and install it. Or install a few and use different ones with different friends. Once installed, add your friend to your buddy list, click the button to chat, and away you go.

There are lots of choices out there, but here are a few of the most popular:

AIM: (Choose to download for Windows or Mac): With AIM, you can chat with all AIM users (the largest instant messaging community in the U.S.), plus iChat users.

Yahoo Messenger (Only the Windows version has audio): Lets you chat with all other Windows Yahoo users as well as Live Messenger users. Yahoo Messenger currently can't chat with Mac users.

Live Messenger: (Windows only): Lets you chat with all other Live Messenger users as well as Yahoo Messenger users.

iChat: (Mac only program, but allows you to chat with AIM for Windows or Mac): iChat comes with Mac OS X, so you don't need to download it. iChat lets you chat with iChat users as well as AIM users.

Once you've got your chat program downloaded and installed, you may need to check the help for exactly how to audio chat with your online buddy. For most programs, it's as simple as clicking a "Call" button, or something similar.

Audio chatting isn't always as convenient as talking on the phone (because you both need to be on the computer), but the price is right, and you'll never be interrupted by telemarketers.

Happy chatting!