Softphones Reviewed: yakForFree

With plans ranging from free to local line replacement, Yak seeks to please a wide range of potential VoIP users.

 By Jeff Goldman
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Yak Communications, unlike many providers in this space, is an established phone company, with services ranging from long distance to dial-around. The company's free softphone-based VoIP service, launched in November of last year, is yakForFree—and with just a few months in the marketplace, the service already boasts more than 30,000 active users in 150 countries.

Company COO David Hurwitz says that while Skypecurrently has the largest market share, the VoIP marketplace is really still wide open. And Yak's intentions are slightly different from Skype's—Hurwitz hopes to bridge the gap between free services and paid local-line replacement services by offering a range of options to appeal to all types of users. "We have a broader product line than Skype alone, and a broader product line than Vonage alone, because we're offering what they both do," he says.

That broader product line includes yakToAnyone, yakBasic and yakUnlimited—three different plans which allow Yak users to call out to PSTN lines. The latter two include E911, and the unlimited plan adds a local phone number, Caller ID, and voicemail, among other services—making it a viable local line replacement for $19.99 a month.

The umbrella brand for all of these services is yakWorldCity—and the yakCommunityprovides a central hub where users can meet each other.

According to Hurwitz, the real aim of the free offering is to drive users towards the higher-level options. "We developed yakForFree as a marketing mechanism to get the Yak brand out, and to promote our paid-to-PSTN services," he says.

Still, Hurwitz says the real future may lie with a different paradigm altogether. "I think the next generation of communications is going to be done in conjunction with social networks," he says. "The day that MySpaceis able to integrate free voice, video, and instant messaging into their site, that changes what Skype offers and what I offer."

In the long run, Hurwitz says, all voice will likely be ad-supported—and free. "We're working behind the scenes to be able to integrate our softphone into a social network—be it someone like a MySpace, or maybe just somebody like Coca-Cola or some other brand, that wants to have a Web site where they can advertise to consumers and allow them to make phone calls in the process of doing so," he says.

In the meantime, though, they've got a voice-and-video service to offer, and a wide range of ways for you use it.

The user interface
The Yak interface uses CounterPath's instantly-recognizable eyeBeam softphone (soon to be upgraded to version 1.5). While the client is available in both Windows and Mac versions (a good thing), we found the interface to have some limitations. The interface is designed to look like a regular phone dialpad—but when you're dealing with contact lists, video, and other VoIP features, that kind of interface isn't necessarily the most intuitive. And while it integrates a lot of business-style features like auto-conferencing, most people will likely see that kind of functionality as secondary to ease of use.

Prod interface

Moreover, your member identity is currently assigned to you, not chosen. To make matters worse, it's a number, not a name. While at Skype you might be identified as JohnDoe, at Yak you're 123456789. Once someone's in your buddy list, you can rename them however you like. But in the meantime, a number is certainly a less user-friendly way to start than a name—and a lot harder to remember.

It's worth noting, though, that Hurwitz says Yak is actively working on a complete redesign, to be released within the next few months. "We're engaged in redoing the GUI to give end users the choice of putting different skin on it, and even a whole second GUI that will look and feel more like an instant messenger—because it would appear that the younger generation is more interested in that," he says.

Future plans for the interface, Hurwitz says, include the ability to present a picture of yourself as a presence icon—and the ability to search for other users from within the phone interface itself. (Currently, you have to leave the softphone and go to the yakCommunityto do a search.)

In the meantime, key features of the dialpad interface include an AA (Auto-Answer) button which sets the software to pick up automatically, an AC (Auto-Conference) button which instantly sets up conference calls (including videoconferencing), and a DND (Do Not Disturb) button which makes the user unavailable to callers.

The interface itself is certainly attractive, with a central dialpad console, a frame for video on the left, and another frame with a buddy/contact list on the right. Both side frames can be easily hidden or detached and resized. Placing a call is as simple as either dialing the person's number and clicking the green call button, or clicking and dragging their name from the contact list onto the dialpad.

With the understanding that changes are afoot, we rate Yak's user interface for now as Fair.

Sound quality
As with many VoIP services, the sound quality can vary widely depending on the quality of your headset and computer and the congestion of Internet traffic—but Yak's sound quality is certainly comparable to that of its competition.

Notably, we didn't experience any dropping out during Yak calls, which can be a common problem with VoIP—either one caller drops from the call temporarily and then returns, or the connection is simply terminated. In our experiences, Yak seemed to have eliminated this as an issue.

We rate Yak's sound quality as Very Good.

Conference calling
Yak can conference up to 10 callers together (we tested with just three). The easiest way to do this is simply to give out your phone number, click on AC (Auto-Conference) and AA (Auto-Answer), and wait for everyone to call in. As they do so, they'll all be entered automatically into the conference. Another method is to dial each party separately (on a different 'line') then click the Conference button.

In our testing, with participants in Los Angeles, Southwestern Connecticut, and Upstate New York, different callers had slightly different experiences. For some, the sound quality was perfect, while others heard some participants much more clearly than others.

Regardless, the setup process for the call was straightforward, and worked well.

We rate Yak's conferencing as Very Good.

Calling the PSTN
The yakToAnyone option—essentially the equivalent of SkypeOut—lets you make calls from your computer to the traditional public switched telephone network. Getting set up for these calls is extremely simple: Go to www.yaktoanyone.com, enter your account information (e-mail address and password), click on "Purchase minutes for your account," enter credit card info, and you're done.

Within the U.S. and Canada, calls cost $0.02 a minute, and rates vary for international calls—a full list of prices can be accessed from a "See all Rates" link at the bottom of the yakToAnyone web site. International rates range from $0.02 per minute to call Sweden, to $1.66 a minute to call East Timor.

Our experience with using yakToAnyone was similar to our experience with peer-to-peer yakForFree calls: Sound quality varied from speakerphone-like to excellent, but calls never dropped. In the process of initiating calls, we did have a couple of dialing errors, with correctly-dialed numbers resulting in Not in Service messages.

We rate Yak's PSTN calling as Good.

Getting help
The two main sources of support for users of both yakForFree and yakToAnyone are an online message board and a relatively detailed FAQ. E-mail contacts are also available at customerservice@yakforfree.com and technicalsupport@yakforfree.com. For the paid (yakToAnyone, Basic and Unlimited) plans, phone support is available at 1-888-YAK-VOIP.

On the message boards, questions range from technical issues to "looking to chat" requests, and they all seem to have been responded to within a few hours.

We rate Yak's Help facilities as Good.

Yak's broad range of options ensures that they've got a plan for just about anyone, ranging from free service to complete local line replacement—which helps them to stand out from many competing VoIP offerings, including the currently industry leader, Skype.

With the paid plans, additional services include everything from E911 to call forwarding and voicemail—as well as a phone adapter (for $59.99), allowing users to connect a traditional telephone directly to the service without having to turn on their computer.

It's still early days for Yak's softphone-based VoIP offering, and with such major changes planned for the service, it’s hard to assess its prospects too clearly, but the range of services offered by the company makes it a promising entry into this highly competitive space.

Ratings Summary: yakForFree
User interface Fair
Sound quality Very Good
Conference calling Very Good
PSTN connectivity Good
Help facilities Good
Overall rating Good

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This article was originally published on May 12, 2006
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