- Hardware options cost money up front
- Software options are often free
- Some services use a cheap, flat fee
Talking to far-flung friends and family is much more fun if you don't have the annoying tick-tick-tick of escalating long distance charges running in the back of your mind. Fortunately, if you have a high-speed Internet connection, there are several ways you can place calls within the U.S. at no charge, and others with unlimited calling for a few dollars a month.
One popular choice is Skype, which offers computer-to-computer calling around the world for free — that's a pretty amazing offer, when you consider the price of picking up the phone and calling England, or Tokyo, or Kuala Lumpur. In addition to a computer at each end, you need a microphone and a speaker, which are already built into nearly all laptops sold today. You can also conduct free face-to-face video calls if you also have a webcam (again, built into most available laptops). If you don't already have the sound and/or video gear required, the host of inexpensive options available, from wired headsets to wireless models to high-definition webcams with very sensitive built-in microphones. One of the most comfortable choices, which also delivers excellent sound, is a phone handset that plugs right into the computer's USB port. These are available both with and without cords.
Of course, asking the person you're calling to gear up for computer-to-computer calling is a bit pushy, but Skype will gladly let you call a regular phone number for a few cents a minute. Unlimited computer-to-phone plans are also available for $3/month (U.S. and Canada) $8/month (U.S., Canada and Mexico) and $14/month (worldwide).
Not included in any of the above is the ability to receive Skype calls from someone calling from a standard phone. You can pay extra ($18 for 3 months) to have a phone number assigned to your Skype connection. Voicemail also costs extra, $6 for 3 months. If you keep your standard telephone service, though, these incoming call services aren't terribly important. And since Skype has no 911 service (unlike other options we'll discuss momentarily), giving up your standard phone entirely isn't advisable.