Google Hangouts Review
Google offers a potentially excellent and free alternative to Skype. Hangouts is the only option we researched that offers free, unlimited calls to numbers in the U.S. and Canada. However, the service is still in its infancy and some features require a Google Voice account, which is available only in the U.S.
Hangouts, which has supplanted PC-to-PC messaging programs including Google Talk, only just added the capability to call a landline or cell phone, so relevant Google Hangouts reviews are still scarce. Several experts have taken the new Hangouts mobile app on a test drive -- reviewers from CNET and Laptop Magazine are impressed with the program's simplicity and well-designed user interface -- but Google reportedly has yet to incorporate phone calling into the mobile version. Users who want to use Hangouts to call landline and cell-phone numbers can do so from within Gmail or Google+ or download an extension for Google's Chrome browser. In the absence of Hangouts reviews that mention the quality of those calls, we went back to write-ups about calling phones from Gmail before that capability was integrated into Hangouts. One representative example from The Wall Street Journal declared the service more reliable than an iPhone and good enough even for work-related calls, if not crystal clear. Several users who have tried out the current service suggest it's half-baked. Key features remain the province of Google Voice, a service that Google has said will be folded more seamlessly into Hangouts. For now, though, users must have a separate Google Voice account to receive calls in Hangouts and take advantage of basic features such as voicemail.
The huge upside to the evolving situation at Google is that the company has made domestic voice calling entirely free through at least the end of 2013. Google Hangouts downloads are free, calls to the U.S. and Canada are free, and a Google Voice number is free. No other VoIP provider offers the complete package at no charge. International service is more limited, however. As mentioned, incoming calls are routed through Google Voice, which is offered only in the U.S. Calls to other countries incur per-minute charges, although the rates are competitive. As with most video-chat programs, you can contact anyone anywhere you wish for free so long as they also use the same program. Simply click the name of a contact in Hangouts and click the call button to connect to a contact via voice or video. Unlike Skype, which requires a premium account, Google Hangouts offers free conference calls with video for up to 10 participants. For common calling features such as voicemail and call forwarding, users need Google Voice, which manages calls to all your phones.
Although Google Hangouts has just debuted in its latest form, we expect it will catch on quickly and continue to improve. It's certainly a solid video-conferencing program, and free calls to landlines in the U.S. and Canada is a compelling offer that Skype doesn't match.