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Ins and Outs Of Calling Via the Net

This week’s e-mail bag brought a note that echoes the sentiments of many others:

Google Voice App
Source: iTunes
Google Voice App

“Hi David! Am I the only one getting really confused by all the free/cheap Internet calling options? Would you mind clearing the steadily occluding waters of Skype, Google Voice, Line2, FreePhone2Phone, and so on? Your fan, Caroline C.”

I loved this e-mail message for two reasons. First, I knew that the answer might make a great column.

Second, you so rarely encounter the word “occluding.”

All right, Caroline, here’s the story.

The world of phone calls is changing fast. Any time some service is both essential and expensive — like phone service — you can bet that somebody will invent less expensive alternatives.

As faster Internet connections caught on, it didn’t take long for clever programmers to realize that the Internet could transmit voices.

The world was suddenly full of programs (Skype, iChat, Google Talk, various Messenger programs) that let you make free “phone calls” to anywhere, as long as you and your callee were both sitting at computers.

Then came the era of cellphones that could connect to the Internet. What a mind-boggler! Doesn’t that mean that app phones (like iPhone and Android phones) could, in theory, make free “phone calls” over the Internet, bypassing voice networks? Your Internet calls would never use up any of your minutes. You’d save all kinds of money. You’d rock the very foundations of the telecom world.

Well, we’re getting there. There’s still no app that offers all three of these elements: free calls, to regular phone numbers, from your cellphone. That, of course, would be the ultimate. For now, you can choose only two of the three. For example, you can make free calls to any phone number — but only from your computer (Google Voice). Or you can make free calls from your cellphone to other owners of an app (Fring, Skype, TruPhone) — but not to actual phone numbers.

To prepare this report on the state of Internet calling, I made a lot of calls in all kinds of different configurations: to a cellphone, to a landline, over WiFi, over cellular, and so on. Over time, it became clear that Internet calling apps represent an excellent exercise in expectation-lowering.

For example, compared with regular cellphone calling, Internet calls usually take longer to connect. The sound quality is almost always inferior; you’d describe it as muffled, faint or distant.

Finally, the voice delay is measurably worse on Internet calls. During each test, I conducted a little experiment: I told my calling partner that I was going to count to three, and asked her to say “three” simultaneously with me. Even on a typical cellphone call, I hear her “three” distinctly late — a half second or so. But on Internet calls, that delay is usually a full second or even more. Don’t try to practice your comic timing on an Internet call.

Ordinarily, calling apps connect to the Internet when you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot. When you’re not, these apps can connect to the Internet over your cellphone company’s data network. In that setup, though, the results are disappointing; the sound is muffled and delayed, and, if you’re driving, the calls drop frequently. Internet calling apps are generally worth using only when you’re on Wi-Fi.

Exaggerating the abilities of these apps is par for the course. Skype and Fring, for example, claim to permit phone-to-phone video chats, even when you’re not using Wi-Fi. In practice, the quality and delays are so horrific that the feature is unusable.

Despite all of these drawbacks, though, these apps offer two unassailable benefits. First, of course, they can save you a lot of money. If you make most of your calls over Wi-Fi, you can downgrade to a cheaper cellphone calling plan, because you’re using fewer minutes. (If you have Line2, Pinger or Google Voice, you can also cancel your text-messaging plan because they offer unlimited free texting.)

And second, these Wi-Fi apps let you make solid calls indoors — precisely where cellular coverage is weakest.

What's free?

All right, then, Caroline: here’s a rundown. Most of these apps are available for iPhone and Android phones. Each recreates your phone’s existing phone-calls app, complete with a dialing pad, Recent Calls list, address book (inherited from the one already on your phone) and so on. All offer very cheap calls to overseas numbers.

SKYPE Free “calls” to anyone, anywhere in the world, with Skype on their computers or phones — which is a lot of people. The company says it is averaging 124 million users a month. If both of you are on Wi-Fi, the call quality is insanely clear and realistic, more like an FM radio broadcast than a cellphone call. Despite the clarity, delay problems can come and go during the call. Delay can still be a problem, though.

To call actual phone numbers, it’s $3 a month for unlimited calls within the United States, paid in advance; there are all kinds of other plans. (With most of these apps, billing can get complicated, and you should not expect tech support of the caliber supplied by your cell company. Line2 is the only app here, for example, with a human staff on its tech support line.)

You can send text messages for 11 cents each. But recipients’ replies come to your phone’s regular text-message app, not to Skype, so you can’t see the back-and-forths in the same app. And you pay for the replies at the standard carrier rate.

TRUPHONE Unlimited calls to landlines in 38 countries, or cellphones in 9 countries, for $13 a month. Like all of these WiFi calling apps, TruPhone turns an iPad or iPod Touch into a Wi-Fi cellphone. No text messaging.

FRING This app’s strength is its ability to connect to a lot of other services, like Skype, MSN Messenger, Google Talk, ICQ, SIP, Yahoo Messenger and AIM — either with “phone calls” or typed chats. As with Skype, you can make calls to phone numbers only by buying credits in advance; you’re billed 0.7 cents or 0.9 cents a minute to domestic landlines and cellphones. Sound quality isn’t great. No text messaging.

LINE2 This app gives your phone a second phone line, with its own phone number. It’s smart enough to place and receive calls over Wi-Fi when available, and over the cell network otherwise; $10 a month buys all the Wi-Fi calls you want, to regular phone numbers. It’s the only app here that offers true phone-to-phone text messaging, which is very useful. My only beef: the app takes too long to notice that it’s on a Wi-Fi network before you can place a call, sometimes 15 seconds.

GOOGLE VOICE Google Voice is free. It offers a million glorious features — transcripts of your voice mail messages, for starters, and free text messages, which is huge. It does not, however, save you any money on cellphone calls; it places calls over the regular cellular network, so it doesn’t conserve cellphone minutes. (Google Voice can make free domestic calls from your computer or a landline, not from your cellphone — at least not without a tricky app called Talkatone.)

FREEPHONE2PHONE This service works on any phone, not just app phones like iPhone and Android. If you listen to a 10- or 12-second ad, you get a free 10-minute call — to landlines in 55 countries.

To use it, you start by dialing a local number, which you look up at FreePhone2Phone.com. After the ad plays, you dial the country code and number; sound quality is excellent. Beats using calling cards, that’s for sure.

TEXTFREE WITH VOICE TextFree, this app’s predecessor, gave an iPod Touch its own phone number — and gave you unlimited free Wi-Fi text messaging. The new free “With Voice” app adds voice calls from Wi-Fi, with a fascinating payment twist: you earn free minutes by downloading certain promoted apps (say, 15 or 30 minutes each). You can also buy minutes cheaply (for example, 250 minutes for $5). This app comes breathtakingly close to turning a Touch into a full iPhone — at a fraction of the monthly cost — which makes it catnip for teenagers and those even younger.

So there you have it, Caroline: my effort to render the cheap Internet calling options just a little less occluded. May all your minutes be free ones!

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.