- 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 are 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 three months) to have a phone number assigned to your Skype connection. Voicemail also costs extra, $6 for three 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.
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.
Feature rich and free
Finally, a solution that's free, reliable, full-featured and comfortable to use, courtesy of Google. There's no need to buy any new gear to use Google Voice. You simply sign up for an account at http://www.google.com/voice. In the process, you enter information about your own phone numbers (home, cell, whatever). Then, when you want to place a call, type the number into Google Voice (you can save these numbers as contacts for future calling convenience). When you click on "Connect," Google first calls your own phone. Then, when you answer, it dials the number you want to call. That's it — you hold a conversation on your regular phone, just as if you'd dialed it the traditional way. Behind the scenes, though, Google has routed your call over the Internet, at no charge for U.S. numbers or a small charge internationally.
The few seconds it takes to place a call via your computer keyboard instead of the phone dial seems a small price to pay for free local and long distance service. There's only one significant caveat: Google Voice is loaded with sophisticated calling features — far too many to list here (they're explained on the website). You can use them or ignore them as you see fit, but the very feature-richness that will charm the tech-savvy may intimidate those who like just-dial-the-phone simplicity. Either way, we'd advise you to give Google Voice a try. The Call button's easily found at the top left corner of the page, and the price can't be beat.