As Seen on TV!
A solution that gives the computer a less prominent role in your phone activities is MagicJack — yes, the one you've undoubtedly seen in cheesy TV commercials and said to yourself, "That can't possibly work." Turns out that, with just a few caveats, it works very well. The MagicJack device itself is a small box, about 2½ x 1½ x ½ inches, with a USB plug that connects to your computer, and a standard phone jack that connects, not surprisingly, to a standard phone handset. You install the software on your PC or Mac, register to receive your phone number, and you're ready to receive calls, or place them at no charge to phones in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (international calling is possible at low per-minute rates).
Now, about those caveats. While the ads trumpet "free calling," what they really mean is free calling for a year. After that, there's a $19.95 annual fee. Unlike Skype, there is a 911 emergency option, as long as you provide your ZIP code when you register. However, the MagicJack only works when your computer is turned on. Modern computers don't suck all that much power, so it's not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it certainly isn't ideal.
No computer needed
Very similar in many ways, but free of the computer-connected requirement, is NetTalk Duo, another small Internet-connected box but with a difference: this one can connect directly to your network router, even if your computer is turned off. (If you travel frequently, it's worth noting that you can optionally connect NetTalk Duo to a computer, leaving open the possibility of making inexpensive calls on the road, as long as you have high-speed Internet).
Both MagicJack and NetTalk Duo offer emergency 911 calling and voicemail service, but NetTalk Duo throws in a cool feature: you can have voicemail messages e-mailed to you if you like for point-and-click playback. NetTalk Duo does have the edge when it comes to tech support, with live agents you can call (MagicJack support is online only). NetTalk Duo is the higher-priced alternative, though, at $69.95 with 1 year of unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada, and 39.95 for subsequent years.
Given the variety of network routers and high-speed Internet providers out there, a quick word of warning is justified here. We had no trouble at all getting either the MagicJack or NetTalk Duo installed, and voice quality was fine — about what you'd get with a cell phone. Some users report problems, though, and solving them can involve some technically complex troubleshooting. Just be sure that, if you buy either one, you have money-back return privileges.