If e-mail is free on the Internet, why not phone calls?
It hasn't happened yet, unless you use computer-to-computer calling services such as Skype. But who wants to go through the inconvenience of talking on a computer all the time?
This month, however, two Internet phone devices are debuting that do away with monthly charges after you pay for the gizmo. And you use your own, traditional phone.
One of them, Ooma, uses a stylish piece of equipment and has at least the patina of coolness because actor-producer Ashton ("Punk'd") Kutcher holds the title of creative director with the company.
The other, MagicJack, is not as snazzy and has no celebrity endorsements. But the gadget is relatively small and a lot cheaper, at least initially.
Beyond differences in cost and hipness, each has pluses and minuses.
And there's is a third product, PhoneGnome, that's been on the market for more than a year. But it comes with such a big minus that it's useful only for a specific situation.
Here's a look at how these three Internet phone systems stack up.
But first, a caveat.
If you buy into one of these services, you're not just purchasing the equipment, you're also getting use of the company's network. And without the network, there's no service.
So what happens if the company goes out of business? Overnight, the device could become about as useful as a commemorative paperweight.
But why worry? Whoever heard of a tech start-up company failing?
MagicJack: This $40, pocket-size device is smaller and much lighter than a cellphone. On one end is a USB connector that plugs directly into the computer. On the other end is a regular phone jack where you plug in your phone.
And that's it. It's probably the simplest hookup in Internet telecommunications, and it works completely outside the regular phone grid.
When the computer is turned on for the first time with the device plugged in, MagicJack goes into setup mode and puts this message on the PC screen: "One minute of patience for a lifetime of savings."
Well, it's really closer to 10 minutes, but it's still relatively painless. You're asked to enter the address where you'll be using the device and then you're issued a phone number.
One drawback is that all the California numbers available right now are in the northern part of the state. For Southlanders, that means a next-door neighbor calling the phone would be charged for a call to San Francisco or Sacramento. The company says it soon will have local numbers for most of California and the rest of the country. Early adopters of MagicJack will get a free transfer to numbers in their areas, when available. When the setup is done, you can start making calls at no charge anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, directly via the Internet. You get a normal dial tone and use the touch pad on the phone in the regular way. Incoming calls ring the phone as normal too.
But for a MagicJack-enabled phone to function, the computer must be on and have broadband access to the Internet. This greatly limits MagicJack's use as the sole phone service in the house, unless you don't mind leaving the computer running all the time.
As for the audio quality on MagicJack, it's good but not perfect. In test calls made to numbers around the country, the clarity and fullness of the audio tended to be better than on a cellphone but not quite as good as when using a land line. Also, several people who were called reported a slight echo at times and some split-second dropouts.
MagicJack comes with several accessory features, including voice mail, call waiting and conference calling. It can be used to make 911 emergency calls.
And if you use the device while outside the country, it retains its U.S. phone number. So phoning numbers in the U.S. and Canada are still free, and the folks in the U.S. calling you are charged as if you were home.
For example, if a friend is in Van Nuys and calling your Studio City MagicJack number, the call is free, even if the phone happens to be in New Zealand.
PhoneGnome: On the front of the box it says, "Make free calls," and, "No monthly fees."
But these statements should come with giant asterisks. Not until you flip over the box and read the smaller type do you see that the free calls are restricted to numbers also registered to PhoneGnome.
If you make long-distance calls to non-PhoneGnome numbers, you need a payment plan with monthly or pay-as-you-go charges.
So unless you are using the $100 device only to call local or designated PhoneGnome numbers, charges will mount up.
Ooma: Even before unpacking the device, it's apparent that this company cares a lot about style.
Ooma comes in an oversized, basic black box with form-fitting inserts. The unit itself is about the size of an old-fashioned answering machine (in fact, it doubles as an answering machine). The gray and white, minimalist case features square buttons and a small "ooma" that's bathed in soft blue light when the device is functioning.
It's a design worthy of a layout in a high-end shelter magazine.
And it carries a price to match. During its introductory period, the basic Ooma Hub costs $400. Eventually, the company says, it will go up to $600.
But there are no additional monthly or annual charges for calls made to numbers within the U.S. So over time -- a long time -- it will save money compared with MagicJack.
At its price, Ooma had better function well. And indeed it does, right down to the instruction booklets.
Ooma, which hooks directly into a broadband modem or router, is a bit more complicated to set up than MagicJack. But the diagrams in the exceptionally easy-to-follow setup guide make it simple. And a computer doesn't have to be on for Ooma to function.
The sound was excellent in test calls. Some of the audio presence that gives a warm quality to a land line connections was missing, but not to a bothersome degree.
The voice mail system provides, at no additional cost, some of the advanced features offered by land line service providers. Ooma can send you an e-mail when a voice message is recorded, and you can retrieve the message on a password-protected Web page without calling the machine.
Ooma can be used to call 911 and comes with call waiting and conference calling.
International calls are low cost. A call to London, for example, is 1.9 cents a minute.
So the question is, Ooma or MagicJack? Ooma seems like a good choice if you are in it for the very long haul, although something else that's cheaper and better could come along in the future.
MagicJack is not as sophisticated in form or function, but for a trial relationship with Internet calling, especially on the run, it's an inexpensive date.
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How the services measure up
Free call area: U.S. and Canada
Product cost: $39.95, includes one year of network use.
Network fee: $19.95 a year
Features: 911 calling, voice mail, call waiting, conference calls
The good: Inexpensive, portable, can be used to cut costs while traveling.
The bad: Computer must be on; audio quality not as good as land line.
Free call area: U.S.
Product cost: $399 during introductory period
Network fee: None
Features: 911 calling, voice mail, call waiting, conference calls
The good: Computer need not be on, excellent audio quality, stylish.
The bad: Expensive
Free call area: PhoneGnome members in U.S. and Canada
Product cost: $99.99
Network fee: $14.95 a month and up for non-PhoneGnome calls
Features: Voice mail
The good: Bypasses computer.
The bad: Free calls limited to PhoneGnome service users.