You can talk as long as you want, and there are absolutely no long-distance charges or costs of any kind.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Google adds free phone calling to Gmail

Oct. 3, 2010

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, The Post-Standard

   Last week I told you that phone numbers are going away. It will take time, but the revolution has already begun. Apple is selling a device that lets you make free phone calls to people by simply "calling" their e-mail address. You can read about that device, the new iPod Touch, at www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec092610.html.
   But Apple's method requires a compatible device on both ends. This limitation doesn't exist for Google's new service.
   In the newest version of Google's Gmail, you can make a voice call to anyone in the United States or Canada for free. You can talk as long as you want, and there are absolutely no long-distance charges or costs of any kind. Your computer will need a microphone. Many laptops have one built in, or you can buy a microphone-headset combination from Radio Shack or any big electronics discounter.
   Google's method isn't like Apple's -- you use real phone numbers -- but it's just as threatening to the phone companies, which want to bill you for all calls one way or another. If both methods catch on with the public and not just with computer geeks, phone companies as we now know them will be forced to change -- and maybe offer free or nearly free calling of their own.
   Google's free calls make Gmail even more attractive. Gmail is free, provides gigabytes of storage (Google says you never have to delete mail) and can be integrated into a standard e-mail program such as Outlook or Apple Mail. To sign up for Gmail, go to mail.google.com/mail/signup and fill out the forms. Most people use Gmail by opening the Gmail Web page (go to the main Google page at www.google.com and click the "Gmail" link at the top left). But to incorporate Gmail into your computer's own e-mail program, see my instructions here: www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec101605.html.
   You must sign up for Google's Chat system in order to make free phone calls. You won't have any problem finding out how to do that, because Gmail leads you to the Chat link the first time you try to make a call.
   You can type phone numbers or click them from a dialing pad. The call seems to go out right away and you'll hear what sounds like the phone on the other end ringing. But beware -- that's just Gmail's attempt, through some ring tones, to reassure you that the call is going through. The actual connection is made 10 to 20 seconds later.
   Call quality was the same as a normal call in my tests. But call your own phone to see how it works before you start calling someone else so you can check how good your computer's microphone is.)
   Google's phone calls need some software assistance, so you're prompted to let Google install some voice software before you can get anything else working. I tried both the Windows and Mac versions and they each installed OK.
   You might be thinking that Skype, a free program for Windows, Macs and Linux PCs, also lets you make phone calls from a computer to a normal phone. That's true, except for the cost. Google's calls are free, while Skype charges for calls to a regular phone. (Skype calls to another computer, which can be either audio or audio/video calls, are indeed free.)
   Gmail voice calls do not yet work with so-called iOS devices -- Apple's popular iPhone, iPad and Internet-capable iPod Touch. But Google software engineers hope to have apps that will do that before long. That would enable easy calling over wireless networks (instead of phone-company lines) for iPhone, iPad and Touch users.