About a year ago, I dropped my Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service and went back to using a landline as my home office line. The cost savings weren't enough to offset the frustration from the erratic audio quality of my VoIP service.
Now, with the ability to make free calls directly from Gmail, I'm almost -- but not quite -- ready to go back to VoIP.
The Gmail voice chat feature is by no means perfect. And to fully benefit from it, you need a Google Voice account. But Gmail VoIP calling could nonetheless save a small business like mine hundreds of dollars per year in phone bills. It's worth considering adding Gmail voice chat to your small business mobile tools.
Here's the 411 on how to use Gmail for free VoIP calls.
How to Make Calls in Gmail
On Aug. 25, Google announced that Gmail users could make free calls to the U.S. and Canada directly from their Gmail inbox. International calls cost $0.02 per minute or more -- a real bargain compared to landline, cell phone and many Skype international rates.
(Google has said that calls are free to the U.S. and Canada "at least through the rest of the year." Here's a complete list of Google's international calling rates.)
Of course, you've been able to make free phone calls on Skype for years. But free Skype calls require each party to be using Skype software on a computer or a handheld device, such as an iPad or iPhone. With Gmail voice calls, you can directly dial someone's mobile or landline phone.
To add telephony to your Gmail inbox, you must first download Google's voice and video chat plug-in. If you've experimented with Gmail's video chat feature, you have the plug-in already.
Dial up free calls in the U.S. and Canada, and enjoy low international calling rates when you use Gmail to make VoIP calls.
(Click for larger image).
Once you install the plug-in, you can make calls via Gmail. To begin, click the "Call phone" icon to launch a pop-up window with a phone keypad. You can either type in the phone number, copy and paste it from a browser window or other software app, or search your Google contacts. If you're making an international call, select the country from a drop-down menu next to the "Search or dial" box in the call pop-up window.
When the party you're calling (or the voicemail) picks up, you just start talking into your computer's microphone. Tip: If you plan to use Gmail's voice calling feature regularly, I recommend investing in a good USB microphone/headset. You'll sound a lot better to your callers, and vice versa. I bought Logitech's ClearChat Pro USB ($42 on Amazon) for this purpose, and I recommend it.
How to Receive Calls in Gmail
You don't have to be a Google Voice user to make calls via Gmail voice chat. However, you must have a Google Voice account (free) in order to receive phone calls in Gmail. Google details the simple steps on how to upgrade to a full Google Voice account.
Google Voice gives you one phone number that will simultaneously ring on your mobile, office, home or other phones. You receive voicemails as email messages with a computerized transcription as well as the audio. Usually, the transcription is fairly poor, though often you can get the gist of the message.
As with the Gmail voice chat feature, Google Voice calls to the U.S. and Canada are free, and international rates are extremely low. I've been using Google Voice for nearly a year, and I'm mostly happy with it.
When someone dials your Google Voice number, you can now answer the call in Gmail or, as always, on any phone you've added to your Google Voice account. Since I spend a lot of time in Gmail, this makes answering calls extremely easy.
But if you've got lots of browser tabs open at one time, as I often do, you might miss a call just trying to find the Gmail tab quickly enough to answer. Tip: The Prism extension to Firefox turns any Web application, like Gmail, into a standalone app on your computer, which makes it easier to jump right into Gmail.
Gmail Voice Call Quality
In most cases, I've been impressed with the audio quality of calls on Gmail's voice chat feature. The people I've talked to couldn't tell I was using a VoIP service. And even when I've played video or downloaded files to iTunes while on a call, I noticed only a few stutters here and there in audio quality.
In the weeks I've been using Gmail voice chat, I experienced disruptively poor audio quality only twice -- both of which were with people calling me on their cell phones. During one call, there was a loud beep every minute or two. On the other call, there was a noticeable lag. In each case, my callers and I simply hung up and tried again with success.
The Free VoIP Verdict
At the moment, Gmail's voice feature is only available to U.S. users. It's not currently supported in Google Apps for business users. And, of course, you must be a Gmail user. If you're not, and have no intentions of becoming one, Skype is probably your best alternative for free and low-cost calls.
In addition, there's one drawback to Gmail voice calling that is preventing me from cutting the cord on my landline just yet.
As a journalist, I often need to record phone interviews. At the moment, you can record calls made to your Google Voice number, but you can't record the calls you make. When and if Google addresses that limitation, I'll most likely let go of my landline.
Overall, though, I'm happy with Gmail voice calling, and I'm using it more each day. It's difficult not to like, if only for the free calls and the convenience of making and receiving calls directly from my email inbox.
Even if you're not interested in Google Voice, I'd recommend at least making international calls from your Gmail account; you can save a lot of money. Or you might use Gmail's voice chat feature when you're traveling and have a decent Wi-Fi signal but lousy cell phone reception.
James A. Martin has written about mobile technology and VoIP since the mid 90s. He's the author of Traveler 2.0, a mobile technology blog, and coauthor of Getting Organized in the Google Era (Broadway Books).
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