Making phone calls across the Internet once meant a tether to your computer, where you spoke into a PC microphone and listened through its speakers. Kinda looked like a ham radio, and the sound wasn't much better.
Skype offers a still-cheaper alternative, but even its monthly charges can seem expensive compared with newer Internet services. Plus, you need to download Skype's software and buy extra gear to use standard phones.
These are simpler, cheaper services that offer good voice quality using standard phones.
• Jajah — No new equipment needed. You don't even need broadband. Simply go to jajah.com and type in the number you want to call. Jajah calls your landline or cell number first, you answer the phone and Jajah then dials the number you're calling. Free calls to other Jajah users or pay 3 cents a minute to others in the U.S., with inexpensive rates for most other countries.
• Talkster — A short audio ad at the start of each call pays the freight. You set up each friend through a simple process in which Talkster assigns a special number to you and your friend. Then dial your friend's number, or they dial yours, from any landline or mobile phone and talk for as long as you like free of long-distance charges. You do pay the charges, if any, for the local call to your wireless provider or telco. Includes free domestic and international calls to and from about 25 countries.
• Rebtel — Using Rebtel's website, you get a special number that's assigned to each friend. Call that number from any landline or cellphone at inexpensive long-distance rates, starting at 1.5 cents a minute for domestic U.S. connections. Or domestic and international calls made to about 40 countries are free with a two-step process: You call your friend, they hang up while you stay on the line, and they dial the number that has appeared on their caller ID.
• Mobivox — Call a local access number to make free calls to Mobivox members in more than 40 countries, or at 1.9 cents a minute to others. "VoxGirl" answers and connects you to numbers you've already set up. You either say the name of the friend or dial their number. You also pay charges, if any, to make the local call from your landline or cellphone. Local access numbers are available in about 35 countries and about 35 states.
• magicJack —This service works only with landline phones. But it's the simplest Internet service we've seen yet that can replace a traditional telephone line. Pay $40 for a small USB device that plugs into your computer. Then plug a traditional telephone, whether cordless or corded, into the USB dongle and start making calls. It comes with a year's domestic calls; additional years cost $20. International calls start at about 2 cents a minute. MagicJack comes with a local phone number so you can also receive calls and includes voice mail and other services. Emergency 911 service even works, though your computer has to be on and your broadband working.