With some VoIP applications, you can make Internet calls for free. The most popular free VoIP provider is Skype, but Google's Voice Calls from Gmail feature is challenging Skype's supremacy. Both have limitations and drawbacks -- for example, Skype ties for the worst call quality of any phone provider in one major survey. We also found some complaints about Google's call quality, but they do have the decided advantage of being free, at least for some types of calls.
With Skype, you can make free voice, video computer-to-computer calls and conference calls (or mobile-to-mobile calls) to anyone, anywhere in the world -- as long as the person you're calling has also downloaded the free Skype application onto their computer or mobile phone. For calls to or from a non-Skype phone, you'll have to pay. Unlimited calls to landlines and non-Skype mobile phones in the U.S. and Canada cost $3 per month. For unlimited calls to landlines in 40 countries, it's $14 per month (calls to international mobile phones cost extra). Or, you can avoid monthly charges by buying prepaid minutes, starting around 2 cents per minute. If you want to be able to receive calls from landline and mobile phones, Skype will assign you a special phone number at a cost of $18 for three months or $60 for a year.
Experts warn that applications like Skype can't make emergency 911 calls, so you still need a landline or cell phone. You'll also need a computer headset, microphone and speakers or a smartphone or other mobile device to make and receive calls. Skype-compatible phones were once plentiful, but have been gradually phased out.
Skype has a big fan club among reviewers. Most reviews say Skype's call quality is usually good when calling from one PC to another, but quality on calls to landline phones can vary greatly. Skype isn't designed to replace your regular phone, but reviews say it's still the best way to place free international calls.
If you don't call internationally, reviews say Google's free Voice Calls from Gmail feature is worth a try. Unlike Skype, Gmail's free calls are limited to U.S. and Canada numbers -- but that includes all landline and mobile phones (Skype calls are free only to Skype-equipped mobile phones and computers). International rates range from 2 cents per minute to the U.K. to nearly $1 per minute to Cuba. Google has announced that Gmail Calling will remain free throughout 2012, though they make no promises regarding what will happen after that.
Google Voice, Google's online phone service, has been around for a while, but it wasn't until Google integrated free calls into Gmail in August 2010 (after buying former Skype competitor Gizmo) that experts started wondering whether it could kill Skype. For now, you can only place free calls from Gmail on your computer -- not from Gmail on your smartphone. There is a separate Google Voice app for smartphones, but it isn't VoIP; it sends calls over your carrier's voice network, not over the Internet. As for incoming calls, you can get those on your Google Voice number, but some users report that they have been unable to get a Google Voice number with a local area code and prefix -- a deal-killer for those who don't want their local callers to incur long-distance charges.
Although reviewers at The New York Times and Laptop Magazine get nice, clear connections, CNET reports some garbling and buzzing with Gmail calls. CNET says a Skype connection is clearer and more reliable than a Gmail call -- which isn't saying much, as Skype gets poor marks for both clarity and reliability in one major consumer survey. Gmail calls are integrated with your Gmail contacts for easy click-to-call functionality, and they enjoy the same perks as all Google Voice calls -- notably, you can use one Google Voice number to ring all of your phones (and now your computer) and receive transcriptions of your voice mails by text or email, though reports say that the transcription often garbles or skips words.
Privacy is a concern in several user comments we saw about Gmail calls. These users suspect that Google will listen to their calls to glean information for advertisers, just as Google computers scan Gmail messages to figure out what kind of ads to send the user. Google dispels this notion in an article in The Washington Post. "Google absolutely does not record or listen in on phone conversations," a company spokesperson says.