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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.

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.

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