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Free and Low-Cost Calling

May 2012

"I don't understand why everyone doesn't use magicJack," said my friend Bill after connecting his and giving it a test run. He has a point. Ever since it first appeared in 2007, the response has generally ranged from "this is totally cool" to "this is the best gadget of the year."

The original magicJack is a small device that plugs into a USB port on your computer, in the same way a thumb drive plugs in. (And it's not much bigger than a thumb drive.) On the opposite end is a phone jack. You plug the magicJack into your computer, plug your phone into the phone jack on the magicJack, and then click to install the software.

Then you pick up your phone — and, voila, you hear a dial tone. Phone company not needed. The gadget costs $40, and the first year of service is free. You get unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada. After the first year, the service costs $20 per year.

magicJack assigns you a phone number when you register after installing the software. Unfortunately, they don't offer local numbers in the 641 area code, where I live, but do offer 515 and 319 area codes.

Features include a voicemail service that takes calls if you're unavailable. You can also transfer your current number instead of using a number from the magicJack service.

For a small fee, you can take advantage of options such as selecting a "vanity number" — that is, a number that spells out a familiar word on a keypad.

I've seen a lot of gadgets in my day, and I've been hearing about magicJack for years. But frankly, the coolness factor gave me a real buzz — plugging a phone into a computer, getting the familiar dial tone, and using it just like you do a regular phone.

What's the point? Bill wants to save money. He canceled the TV channel portion of his Mediacom, and put up an $18 set-top antenna instead. He gets about half a dozen channels. And now he's intent on canceling his local phone service as well, and using magicJack instead. His total cost for Internet, phone, and TV per month will be $40. Plus, the $20 annual fee that he'll have to pay to magicJack after the first year.

Any downside? Two that I can think of. One is that his computer has to be on in order to receive a call (though the voicemail is always there to take calls if his computer is off). And second, magicJack, being such a low-cost service, doesn't have the greatest technical support.

However, the first issue is easily remedied by buying magicJack Plus. You don't even need the computer. The little gadget looks pretty much like the original magicJack, but instead of plugging it into your computer, you connect it to an open port on an Ethernet router. It also has a small power adaptor. This way, you can make and receive calls without needing a computer. Your magicJack is on all the time.

magicJack Plus costs $70 for the device and $30 per year after the first year. Another advantage is portability. You can travel with it, and connect it to an Ethernet port wherever you go. Your phone service travels right along with you.

magicJack's international calling rates are ridiculously low — 2¢ per minute to China, for example, or 5¢ per minute to India.

And if magicJack is cool and cheap, get this: Google offers a service that's completely free (though it's only guaranteeing the freebie through the end of 2012).

You simply sign up for a free Gmail account. Then click on a link at left that says "Call phone." Click on it and a number pad pops up, ready for you to make a free call to the U.S. or Canada. It may ask you to first download and install a voice plugin, which is easily accomplished.

And even cooler is that if you sign up for the free Google Voice service, it lets you select a phone number. You can then configure your Gmail account to not only make unlimited free calls to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada but also to receive calls via your Google Voice number. (Learn how to receive calls here.) You basically get free phone service, simply by using your computer's microphone and speaker or by plugging in a headset.

Give it a try. Click on the "Call phone" link and make a free call, just for the fun of it.

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© 2012 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen