Stay in Touch with These Voice over IP Apps
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.
MicroSIP is a free portable open-source app powered by C and C++. MicroSIP boasts a very minimalist approach in every aspect. The app's footprint is less than 2.5MB and its RAM usage is less than 5MB. It has configurable TLS/STRP encryption for privacy-minded users. Its configuration is stored in a single .INI file, making customization and portability relatively painless for users with the patience and expertise to mess around with it. MicroSIP supports voice and video calls, but if you're looking for bells, emojis and stickers then MicroSIP's spartan interface may turn you off. It's really recommended for more advanced users.
Linphone is a free VoIP and SIP client that was originally developed for Linux platforms but now also supports Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. It can be used to make voice and video calls, and can be run in-browser. Linphone is designed to support audio and HD video calls, call management and transferring, conference calls, file sharing and more.
Discord (Desktop, Android, iOS) is a VoIP app that's gotten a lot of buzz from gamers, becoming the preferred choice of a number of Twitch streamers. One reason why gamers are rallying to Discord is its minimal requirements — you don't need to download a program or host a server, as everything in Discord can be set-up and run using your browser (while offering more options with an installed client). Discord also boasts additional security features like IP Address hiding, Twitch API and Steam integration, which makes it attractive to everyday gamers and streamers alike. Discord's developers are promising to add more features such as video calling, and a premium Discord Nitro tier provides additional customization such as custom emotes and GIF avatars.
TeamSpeak 3 (Desktop, Android, iOS) is another premier gaming VOIP app that uses a client-server model to produce something similar to a voice-enabled IRC channel with its system of User Permissions to enable certain users in a voice and messaging conference to have the power to moderate, invite and kick out other users. TeamSpeak 3 offers free servers that can host up to 32 simultaneous users; you can also buy a license to support up to 512 simultaneous users on up to two virtual servers. The app is currently trying to branch out from its userbase of gamers to commercial and educational uses, and has introduced features like PPK authentication, AES encryption, and both Android and iOS apps to attract this market.
Mumble is a free, open source VoIP app that's compatible with multiple platforms that boasts great sound quality and low latency. One of its big draws for gamers is positional audio that makes speakers sound louder if they are nearer to you in-game, and fainter when they're farther. Communication is always encrypted, and there is an extensive user permission system that can allow server admins to grant privileges and roles to users to help in managing a server.
TeamTalk is a freeware conferencing system featuring VoIP and voice calls that supports the Windows, Mac and the most widely used Linux distributions. To be able to use it, users must have both a client account and a server set up. TeamTalk's big draw is its Accessibility Version, which allows visually-impaired users to be able to more easily use screen readers and text-to-speech apps to be able to communicate with other TeamTalk users.
Ventrilo used to be the nearly standard tool for online gaming voice chat, but time and the development of newer apps have rendered it almost a relic. That said, Ventrilo is still a popular VoIP alternative for gamers, even if there can be noticeable latency and fiddly audio settings. Still, the fact that Ventrilo's server software is free for groups of up to eight players means that for small groups on a budget, it's a reasonable, if dated, choice for in-game communications.