The cost of phone calls especially using voice over IP (VoIP) has dropped dramatically over the past five years or so.
Internet based voice services like Skype have proliferated and calls between members of these services are always free. But calls to other phones landlines or mobiles carry a per minute charge, albeit small.
Last year, Google, which has been doing voice-ish things for several years, launched Call phone, a plugin that works within its free Web-based e-mail application Gmail.
There's no guarantee that this will remain true forever, but Google offered free calls to any phone within the U.S. and Canada when it launched the app, and it has extended that offer through 2011.
To be clear up front, Call phone is something you do from a computer at least so far. If you have a computer equipped with a microphone and speakers, or if you own a mic-equipped headset, you're ready to go. If not, you'll need to acquire a headset (the best option in our opinion).
The only prerequisite to downloading and installing the Call phone plugin is that you have a Gmail account.
If you do, you'll find the green Call phone icon in the left-hand navigation bar, at the top of your list of frequent Gmail contacts.
If you're not a Gmail member, go to www.gmail.com and click the 'Start a new account' button. On the signup screen, enter your name and pick a login name (make sure to write it down somewhere). Click the 'Check availability button to see if that login is already taken. If it's not, you'll enter and re-enter a password (be sure to write that down too), and you're in business. This whole process shouldn't take more than five minutes.
The next steps downloading and installing the plugin shouldn't take more than another five at the most.
Double-click the Call phone icon. This brings up the dialpad. You'll see a link and the message 'Please download the voice plugin.' Click the link and follow the on-screen instructions to download. Double-click the downloaded file and installation is quick and automatic.
After rebooting your browser, you can click Call to bring up the dialpad any time you need to. Just enter the number you want to reach and click the Call button at the bottom. Our experience in using the application is that call quality is quite good, and reliability high.
You can also make international calls using Call phone, but they do cost money, and thus is outside the scope of this particular article.