VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, is the hip way to talk on the phone. Skype and its ilk have lead to an explosion of VoIP programs, apps and hardware that let you bypass traditional phone networks in favor of digitized over-the-internet voice calls, instant messaging and video conferencing. Whether it's business executives using telepresence and video conferencing to cut down on travel costs, online gamers looking for an easy means of in-game communication or far-flung families looking for a means to get in touch with distant loved ones that won't cost an arm and a leg, VoIP is an integral part of life for many. These are the apps to get. (Image Credit: Arek Malang/Shutterstock)
Skype boasts a huge user base, with more than 300 million subscribers. Free Skype-to-Skype audio and video calls, group calls, as well as text and voice messaging cover your telephony basics. More advanced tools such as call forwarding, sending SMS messages, Caller ID, a Skype number, calling landline or mobile phones worldwide, and video conferencing can be enabled with Skype Credit or a subscription plan. Additionally, Skype for Business features robust Office 365 integration, and runs through a Lync server, so messages and calls do not need to leave the office intranet unless made to or by an outside user.
After languishing in development limbo for years, Google Voice has gooten a major update to its web and mobile apps (Android, iOS), bringing a ton of usability and interface improvements, from Google's Material design to a new style of inbox that separates your text messages, calls, and voice mail, as well as improvements to group messaging and MMS features. (Just in time, too, as Google Hangouts — one of the company's other video chatting options — is getting an overhaul as a business communication tool to compete with the likes of Slack.) All of these features come in addition to familiar strong points of Google Voice, such as auto-transcribed voice mail (now including Spanish), call forwarding, spam-filtering, and more. Google has said that it's going to be providing new features and more consistent updates to Google Voice, so maybe Google's messaging future may, in fact, lie in its past.
Vonage is a popular provider for premium home VOIP plans, with a telephone-like experience that also includes numerous extras such as call forwarding, mobile extensions with smartphone apps, and support for a number of international locations. On the desktop end of things, Vonage also offers some neat extras to bring your calls to your desktop or laptop, such as SoftPhone, for making and receiving calls, voicemail, and other features ($9.99 per month), and subscribers to Vonage's business plans get the heftier Vonage DesktopConnect, a communications hub for making calls, sending messages, tracking call history, and more, from the convenience of your office computer.
ooVoo is an instant messaging and voice/video calling service featuring instant messaging, text chat, video calls and messaging, and 12-way video conferencing. Other interesting features include the ability to invite non-ooVoo users to calls (prompting them to sign up and install), create browser-based "Call Me" buttons, as well as file and screen sharing, great for collaborative work or online meetings. Purchasing premium credits allows you to call landline numbers in more than 70 countries at reasonable rates, as well as connect landline callers to conference calls (audio only). It's also since moved to mobile devices with Android and iOS clients available.
The Viber desktop app has managed to catch-up with the mobile app in terms of features and functionality, as Viber debuts its changes on its iOS and Android platforms first. You still need to have a Viber account on your phone to get the desktop version to work, but syncing your contacts and call history is now automatic and instantaneous. There's also a nifty transfer call feature that lets you seamlessly switch between desktop and mobile when making, receiving or during a call. And Viber finally added group chat and call functionality to its desktop feature.
Initially just a part of the greater Facebook experience, Messenger has since branched off into its own beast, with a web app and mobile apps powered by your Facebook login to provide instant messaging, voice, and video calls through Wi-Fi or mobile data. Ease of use, a ton of features such as image sharing and stickers, and the sheer ubiquity of Facebook have made Messenger a popular choice for making voice and video calls without going through your phone.
Jitsi is a Java-based free and open-source program for VoIP and instant messaging. It runs on Windows, Mac, and most Linux platforms. Jitsi boasts a six out of seven on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's secure messaging scorecard, so if security is your main concern then Jitsi may interest you. Jitsi is recommended for the more adventurous user who's not afraid to mess around with configuration files and encryption keys to get a customized experience safe from snooping.