by Daniel Jiang for BA 296-7
CoolTalk is a well designed and polished application. More than just an internet phone, its additional features of chat tool and white board make it truely a useful internet conferencing tool.
Amid recent flurry of products in the so-called internet telephone application area, CoolTalk is one of the more interesting entries. One reason is that CoolTalk, which is produced by InSoft, comes bundled with the widely popular web browser Netscape. This parternership helps CoolTalk to become more widely installed and accepted. The result is that CoolTalk is one of the most prominent among such applications.
However, CoolTalk is more than just another internet telephone software, as its name may seem to suggest. CoolTalk is actually a set of internet based conferencing tools, which include realtime full-duplex audio communication, chat tool and white board. Furthermore, there is even an answer machine function in CoolTalk. Another major attribute of CoolTalk is that it serves more than just the Microsoft Windows platform. It is also available for several Unix systems, among others.
To get ready for CoolTalk is not easy nor cheap. CoolTalk requires some high performance hardware ready. The process to prepare such hardware configurations may not be easy for most users.
To use CoolTalk, one needs to have a computer with sufficient processing power, a sound card, TCP/IP connection over at least a 14.4 Kbps modem line, and of course a microphone and speakers. Practically, one should have the following before attempting to try CoolTalk.
A duplex sound card is one that is able to play and record sound at the same time. This is necessary for true telephone type conversation, in which both users are able to talk and listen at the same time. If the sound card is not duplex, then the conversation model would become the same of using ham radio, in which two users alternate between speaking and listening.
A bandwidth of 28.8 Kbps or higher is required for duplex conversation. If one only has 14.4 Kbps connection, only simplex conversation is possible even if the sound card is duplex.
It is also necessary to get a TCP/IP connection because CoolTalk uses internet for communication and TCP/IP is the language for internet. For Windows 95, this means one needs to have a PPP connection.
Installing CoolTalk is a largely painless process. Because CoolTalk comes bundled with Netscape, it is installed as part of the package. Just say "yes" when asked whether you want CoolTalk, and it is done. CoolTalk can also be downloaded and installed separately, but I do not have first hand experience to comment on that type of installation process.
Configuring CoolTalk is made simple by a very user friendly setup wizard, assuming that all required hardware are properly installed which in itself may be where the headache is.
The setup wizard automatically detects and sound card and try to configure it for usage. It also asks for some personal information for a "business card" to be exchanged on the course of using CoolTalk. There is also a configuration option which opens the window shown. In general, the configuration is a simple process through highly automatic setup process.
All of CoolTalk's features can be easily accessed via clicking a few buttons on the tool bar at the top of the main user interface. These features include voice conversation, chat tool, white board and answer machine.
Voice conversation is the namesake for CoolTalk. Its usage has three steps: connection setup, conversation and disconnection.
To setup a connection, one can use an address book to enter another user's IP address and send a request for connection. Those addresses recorded in the address book are shown in the speed dial button section at the buttom of the main user interface. A simple clicking on the intended user will send a connection request too. Alternatively, one can access a 411 server operated by Netscape to find someone to connect to.
Once a connection is sent and the other user has CoolTalk running, an alert would be shown to the other user and connection can be accepted then. CoolTalk also provides a CoolTalk watchdog application which continuously monitors for incoming connection request and pops an alert when it happens. This application is normally run as part of the Windows 95 startup process.
Once a connection is made, both users can then start to converse through microphone and speakers. The voice quality depends on the network condition and voice coding algorithm chosen. Generally, there are two choices for voice coding, GSM and Voxware. I found GSM to work well and the voice is very clear given right network connection.
CoolTalk has a nice feature to transmit personal information of a user to the other. The information includes a bitmap picture, name, address, etc. The bitmap picture, however, is not very good given its limited colors.
To stop a conversation, any one of the users can simply chose to disconnect and the connection would be closed.
The chat tool is a utility for communication textually. When chosen, a window with two text sections appears. The buttom section is for user to type in text or import text files for editing. To send a piece of text, just press Ctrl-Enter, and the text in the editing pad will appear on the other user's chat tool. The top section is the log section, which displays the messages sent from the other user as well as the one sent by the user himself / herself.
At the first look, CoolTalk's white board is not very different from a paint program. In fact it is not. The look and the usage are all very much the same of other common drawing programs. And this is the reason why white board is so easy to use.
However, there is one important difference between white board and other drawing programs. White board is shared, which means whatever you draw and write on the board is also shown on the other end in real time, and vise visa. This function is probably the most useful features of CoolTalk. How many times have you been talking on the phone, trying to explain how to get from A to B without success, and thinking "if only I can show you a picture!" Now you can with the white board.
A easy way to think of white board is to see it as an "interactive fax" machine. Of course, white board sends drawings with no degradation, something fax can not do. In fact, even photos can be loaded on the white board and sent over, given enough patience for the wait.
Who would find it useful to keep a computer on just to serve as an answer machine? The cost of keeping a power hungry Pentium computer up should add up to an answer machine's price pretty quickly.
The answer machine function is a gimmick, end of story.
Overall, CoolTalk is a well designed and polished application. It is generally easy to install and use, although it may not be simple to setup its required hardware beforehand.
The collection of features, with the exception of answer machine, serves well for its designed goal, which is to provide internet conferencing capability. Chat tool and white board are very useful and help CoolTalk to differeciate itself from other mere internet phone products. This is important, because given the high cost of hardware requirement, savings on long distance calls is not necessarily the most important reason for someone to use such products. Furthermore, the quality of the voice conversation over internet is much more of a function of the network condition rather than the software, additional functionalities of chat tool and white board are truely useful when voice conversation is not working well.
This page is created by Daniel Jiang.