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Cheap VoIP Phone Service Guide

Some cheap VoIP services use free software installed on your computer and others require an adapter that connects your phone to a modem or PC. The main player on the software side is Skype, which also is our top pick due to its high-caliber call quality and very inexpensive calling plans (free PC-to-PC calls; $3 per month for unlimited calling to the United States and Canada).

The best cheap hardware-based VoIP service is Ooma, which requires a costly adapter ($150) but delivers on service and voice quality and pays off with free calling in the U.S.

VoIP Reviews: Adapter-Based Services
Free VoIP Services, Apps, and 911 Calls
VoIP Hardware Costs, Plans, and Features

Google recently integrated its messaging programs under the Hangouts moniker and stands out as the only provider that lets users make free phone calls to numbers in the U.S. and Canada. That helps earn it a runner-up spot on our list, along with Vonage, a hardware-based VoIP service that's a star on the international calls circuit for providing decent call quality at relatively low rates (including $26 per month for unlimited worldwide calls). Consumers who need only a domestic calling plan may also want to consider MagicJack Plus ($30 per year for unlimited free calls plus $70 for the hardware), although the relatively limited service and concerns about customer relations kept the company from making our cut. The two VoIP services that fail the user-satisfaction test due to poor reliability and/or customer service are NetTalk Duo ($50 plus $30 per year for unlimited calling to U.S. and Canada) and Lingo ($24 per month for unlimited calling to the U.S. and 45 other countries), both of which require adapters.

The first decision point is whether to go with a hardware-based VoIP service that requires an adapter on your landline phone or a computer-based service that runs on free software. To a certain extent, the technologies limit the functionalities. Software-based providers such as Skype and Google Hangouts, whose core functions are PC-to-PC video calling, voice calling, and chat, are meant to supplement an existing landline or cell phone service, whereas hardware-based VoIP services can replace landline service completely. The critical distinction, and one reason that militates against using software-based VoIP as your primary phone service: no emergency 911 calls.

Once you've settled on the technology, consider each service's calling plans (fees and calling areas) and the specific functions the plans include. The usual array of phone features -- e.g., caller ID, voicemail -- may or may not be part of a basic or even a premium package; details depend on the provider and the various plans on offer. Also note: Some hardware-based services assess an upfront fee for the adapter; some cheap VoIP services charge for a dedicated phone number; and some let you transfer an existing landline number but may charge for doing so.

Finally, any cheap VoIP phone service depends on having a fast, reliable broadband Internet connection, such as DSL or cable. If you don't have a broadband Internet connection, or if yours is unreliable, consider upgrading your Internet access before looking into VoIP service.

VoIP Reviews: Adapter-Based Services

VoIP reviews largely commend the call quality and reliability of the best cheap services out there. Things have improved significantly over the years in no small part due to better technology. Users still run into problems, though, usually in the form of dropped calls or poor reception, and even our top picks aren't completely immune to glitches. Serious difficulties (i.e., unrelated to the Internet connection or improper installation of the VoIP adapter) must be resolved by contacting customer service. And on this score, VoIP reviews are far more critical of some companies than of others. Here's a look at what they say about the hardware-based providers on our list.

VoIP Call Quality and Reliability.

Despite incredibly low costs, the quality of the connection with cheap adapter-based VoIP service is often quite good. The underlying Internet connection can impact the quality of phone calls, however, so be sure the connection is fast, reliable broadband.

Ooma requires an adapter dubbed Telo. The device impresses hundreds of users who have posted reviews on the Walmart website. They trill about the excellent call quality and reliability, with some saying it rivals that of a landline phone and beats out hardware-based competitors. The special Ooma dial tone earns a few shout-outs from users, but we did come across a spot of grousing here and there about speech delay, lost calls, and intermittent service outages.

VoIP reviews for Vonage are good but far less numerous and slightly less enthusiastic. At Digital Landing a reviewer concludes that call quality with Vonage is better than comparable adapter-based services but not as reliable as the traditional landline. And one user who posted at Best Buy contends that sound quality on overseas calls pales compared with U.S. calls.

A few other adapter-based services eke out a "pass" for call quality but can't compete with the category leaders for other reasons, notably customer relations. The handful of VoIP reviews for NetTalk Duo posted at Target report equipment problems, with similar accounts at Amazon accompanied by tales of dropped calls and incoming calls that fail to register. And while some NetTalk Duo users say call quality is acceptable, others grieve about static, scratchiness, break ups, and distortion. Most Lingo users have lots to say about the company's billing practices and poor customer service, but call quality only occasionally surfaces in their commentary. Where it does, many say audio and reliability are at least average.

MagicJack Plus is an enticingly cheap option with call quality that's loud and clear, according to a PC World expert, and compares favorably with that of a landline. Numerous VoIP reviews at Amazon, however, beg to differ and list grievances like dropped calls, choppy audio, and hardware malfunctions. (Some disgruntled users found they could fix the problem by resetting the MagicJack Plus adapter.)

VoIP Customer Support.

Sometimes a tech product is only as good as the customer service behind it. All electronics are subject to hiccups and service issues, and sometimes customers just need a little help understanding how to set up or use the device. VoIP services are no exception. But VoIP reviews indicate that some providers' customer service is better than others.

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Ooma, for the most part, receives good marks for customer service in reviews at Costco, where users praise the rapid and helpful response whether by phone or online chat. User sentiment about Vonage is mixed, judging by VoIP reviews. Some say customer support is fine, and being able to reach the company in several ways, including through Twitter, is a real plus. On the other hand, some reviewers complain that Vonage customer representatives make it excessively difficult to cancel service or try to pressure users into paying for services they don't want.

VoIP reviews reveal that MagicJack Plus users aren't particularly fond of that company's customer service. Posts at Amazon ding the lack of live phone support (chat is the only option) and others say support is slow and doesn't resolve problems. One reviewer notes that MagicJack is dogged by a long track record of poor service, affirmed by the company's low ranking for customer service at the comparison and information site VoIPReview.org.

NetTalk Duo likewise suffers from customer service woes, according to users. At various sites they complain about being put on hold for unreasonable amounts of time -- and finally hanging up -- and difficulties reaching tech support. Reviews suggest Lingo's customer service is even worse. Many users who have commented at VoIPReview.org carp about excessively long hold times, shifty charges that customer service fails to undo, unexpected charges for free conferencing services, and generally dodgy billing practices.

Free VoIP Services, Apps, and 911 Calls

Computer-based services such as Skype and Google Hangouts run on free VoIP software and require no additional hardware to make free or low-cost long-distance calls. Google users can download an extension for the company's Chrome browser or make free calls to the U.S. and Canada directly through Gmail or the Google+ social network. Users who sign up for a free Google Voice number can also receive phone calls via Hangouts, but that service is available only in the U.S.

With Skype, free VoIP service is limited to Skype-to-Skype calls. Even group video calling (free in Hangouts for up to 10 people) requires at least one participant to have a premium account. Still, users pay as little as $3 a month to make unlimited calls to landline and mobile phone numbers in the U.S. and Canada. Receiving calls from traditional phones requires a Skype Number, which costs up to $6 a month.

Among all the VoIP services we researched, Skype is the runaway winner in the call-quality department for both voice and video, according to reviews. An expert at PC Mag asserts that users of Windows 8 will find that Skype's performance with this update surpasses that of any other VoIP service, with clear audio and sharp, full-screen images of the person at the other end during video chats. Reliability is also solid, asserts the reviewer and users who have posted on a CNET forum. Of course, all these strong endorsements assume the presence of a speedy Internet connection and good-quality camera.

Skype's customer service seems to have improved over the past few years. We found quite a few complaints in older VoIP reviews but few in recent posts. Skype users who do grouse typically limit their comments to the company being owned by Microsoft. On Skype's online support forum, some also express frustration at being unable to find straightforward answers to their questions on the company website.

Google is in the process of integrating its Google Voice phone-management system into Hangouts and only recently added the option to call phones, so expert feedback has yet to come in on that score. Several user postings on Google Product Forums suggest the company still needs to work out some kinks, including a lag when answering in Hangouts that results in missed calls. When Google originally launched the capability to call phones from Gmail, pre-Hangouts, testers including this reviewer from TechCrunch had high praise for the call quality, finding it comparable to Skype. Given the ongoing unification of Google's messaging capabilities, it remains to be seen whether users and experts will be satisfied with the way things shake out under Hangouts. In the meantime, it costs users nothing to test out the service for themselves.

Most other "free" VoIP providers offer only PC-to-PC calling free of charge. If the option to call landline phones is available, it typically requires users to sign up for a prepaid calling plan or buy credits, a la Skype. Oovoo, for instance, charges per minute but advertises low rates: 1.8 cents to the U.S. and Canada, for example, compared with 2.3 cents via Skype without a subscription. Some programs promise free calls to landline phones but define the service very narrowly. With iCall, for example, free "unlimited USA and Canadian calling" comes with a five-minute limit and a short ad before every call. For longer, ad-free calls, customers must sign up for iCall's premium service, which costs $10 per month. Yahoo Messenger used to let consumers buy minutes to make landline calls, but the company axed that feature early in 2013. PC-to-PC voice or video calls are still doable with Yahoo Messenger. In general, free VoIP service is confined to calling other users of the same program.

These services are, at best, a supplement to your existing phone service rather than a replacement for it because of several critical limitations: They cannot be used to make emergency 911 calls, they do not use regular handsets, and features like call waiting often are not available.

VoIP Apps.

For consumers put off by the idea of speaking into a computer microphone instead of a handset, software-based VoIP services offer smartphone apps. Typically you can use the app to make calls using your cheap or free VOIP service rather than use up your phone plan's minutes. This can be especially beneficial for international calling, which carries high per-minute rates on many cell-phone plans.

All the VoIP services we recommend provide downloadable apps for both Android and iPhone users. Skype also has apps for Windows Phone and BlackBerry users. However, as TechCrunch laments, Google has yet to incorporate phone calling into the Hangouts mobile app. VoIP apps are usually free, but there are exceptions. Ooma, for example, offers its iOS app for free, but users must pay $10 for the Android version. Ooma also charges per minute through the VoIP app, although it's relatively cheap at 1.6 cents for U.S. calls. With Vonage you can make calls to other Vonage users without paying a cent.

VoIP 911 Service.

While free VoIP software -- Skype and Google Hangouts included -- does not support emergency 911 calls, the hardware-based services do, although some charge a small monthly fee for this feature. Emergency calls from a traditional landline phone immediately transmit your callback number and location to the 911 operator. What about VoIP phones? The FCC explains that VoIP Enhanced 911 or E911 service isn't quite the same as traditional 911 service. For example, if a location is sent to the operator, it will be the address registered with your VoIP service provider, so it's crucial to keep that address up to date.

VoIP Hardware Costs, Plans, and Features

VoIP Hardware.

If you opt for one of the adapter-based VoIP services that bypasses computers completely, you'll need VoIP hardware that connects a traditional phone to a modem. This arrangement lets you make calls the same way you do on a landline phone. Some hardware-based VoIP service providers charge a one-time fee for the adapter and some charge only for shipping and handling. Among the providers we researched, Ooma imposes the highest startup cost by far -- $150 to purchase the Telo adapter -- but then you can make free calls for as long as you keep the service. Vonage is currently waiving its shipping fees and does not charge for the adapter. The MagicJack Plus adapter carries a $70 price tag and the hit for NetTalk Duo's hardware is $50. Getting started with Lingo is free -- no charge for the VoIP hardware or an activation fee. Adapters for Ooma, MagicJack, and NetTalk are available directly from the companies and some big-box retailers.

VoIP Service Plans.

Each VoIP provider, whether hardware- or software-based, offers a variety of plans to suit a variety of calling needs.

In the software category, Skype subscriptions start at $3 a month for unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada. The company charges $14 a month for unlimited worldwide calling. A premium package for another $5 a month covers group video calls and unlimited calling anywhere. And, of course, the company lets you connect to another Skype user via video, voice, or chat for free. With Hangouts, Google allows chat, voice, and video conversations with up to 10 contacts and calls to phone numbers in the U.S. and Canada -- all for free -- and offers low per-minute rates for international calls through Google Voice.

Among the hardware-based providers we researched, Vonage offers unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada for $25 a month (local taxes and fees not included), which is steep compared with some other VoIP services. But for only a dollar more, users can make unlimited calls to 60 countries (including the U.S.), which is quite a deal; cheaper plans for calls to the U.S. and Canada are priced by the number of minutes. For consumers who shell out $150 for Ooma's Telo adapter, all U.S. calls are free (except for local taxes and fees). Ooma charges monthly fees for 1,000 minutes to 61 countries or unlimited international calls.

NetTalk Duo charges $30 for its basic VoIP plan (unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada) and for an additional $120 a year clients can call 60 countries. The first month as a Lingo client is free, but after that expect a monthly fee of $24 (plus taxes and fees) for unlimited calls to 45 countries; cheaper plans with limitations are also available.

VoIP Phone Numbers.

If you plan to be a dedicated VoIP user, you must set up a phone number to receive incoming calls -- and you may have to pay for the privilege. As mentioned, Skype charges up to $6 a month for a VoIP phone number; customers who commit to a full year and/or buy a subscription receive discounts of up to 50 percent. A Google Voice number for use with Hangouts is free but available only in the U.S. Most hardware-based VoIP services grant a phone number gratis and may let you transfer a landline number to your VoIP account. Companies often charge for porting phone numbers, however. Ooma charges $40 to port a number but forgoes the fee if you sign up for an annual subscription. NetTalk Duo simply charges a one-time fee of $20 for number porting, as does Google.

Voicemail, Caller ID, and Other Features.

Many of the same convenient features that come with a traditional phone setup, such as voicemail, caller ID, call waiting, and perhaps even a second phone line, are also available with VoIP phone service, often for free, although software-based providers are less generous. Skype offers just a small set of features, such as caller ID, call forwarding, and text messaging, for a fee. Google offers these types of services through Google Voice, which is open only to U.S. users.

Most hardware-based services offer a broad array of features with even basic VoIP plans and typically kick in more with a premium plan. Ooma's $10-a-month premier plan, for example, includes free calls to Canada, three-way conferencing, call forwarding, voicemail-to-email, two lines, and call screening and blocking (the latter a particularly big hit with users). Three-way calling is standard with Vonage, along with call waiting, call transfer, caller ID, and several other features. The basic plans at NetTalk and Lingo also include many common features, although the particulars differ.



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