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Some of the cheapest VoIP today comes as a software download for your computer. The program, called a softphone, emulates a phone with a dialpad on the user interface, and will connect you to numbers like a regular telephone.
Like all VoIP, softphones connect to the VoIP network through your current highspeed Internet connection. PC-to-PC on the same VoIP network is almost always free; PC-to-phone is rated per minute.
Softphones require a computer, speakers and mic, or a headset/handset. VoIP service with a softphone is great for multitasking at home or for traveling with your laptop/netbook.
There are basic programs that function only as softphones. These are usually free to download. Other VoIP software comes with proprietary service for mobility or convenience.
Some softphones you can download as an app to have VoIP on your mobile device.
If your primary VoIP service is softphone-only, your computer must be on to receive calls.
Notably, many softphones with their own VoIP service do not include emergency calling.
Calling rates are entirely dependent on the VoIP service behind the softphone. Many VoIP softphones allow users of the same type to call each other for free. Calling landlines or mobile phones is usually a low rate per minute.
Generally, there are two types of softphone: one that provides its own VoIP service, such as Skype, and one that allows you to use the program for any compatible 3rd-party VoIP service, such as X-Lite.
The following softphones provide their own VoIP service.
Skype functions much like an instant messaging system, with text chat, video chat, and free Skype-to-Skype calls. It also features a softphone to call mobile and landline numbers, which requires Skype Credit.
With Skype Credit purchased, you have access to per minute rated calling, subscription, or Skype's Premium service. Calls to non-Skype numbers are cheap and international rates are low.
Skype users have custom usernames unless they purchase a phone number.
Subscription to Skype allows unlimited calling, and the monthly price depends on which countries you choose. For example, Unlimited US and Canada costs $2.99/month.
You can download Skype's VoIP program for free. Skype is also available as a mobile app.
iCall is available for your web browser, PC, or mobile device. The VoIP software download is free for all three mediums.
Calls are limited to 3 minutes on the web, 5 minutes on the softphone download, though you can call right back. You will also hear and see advertisements before your call is put through.
All phone calls to the US and Canada are free, as well as all inbound calls from any location.
"Local access numbers" are provided to connect its users, unless a phone number is purchased.
iCall Total Access has more minutes for a small monthly fee, with no ads in the VoIP program. In the free version, voice quality is throttled; Total Access uses iCall's best sound quality.
With Total Access VoIP service, you also get 1000 minutes per month to USA or Canada mobile or landline numbers, voicemail, and your own phone number in any desired area code.
iCall Total Access costs $9.95 per month, on top of per minute international calling rates.
VoIPStunt, VoIPBuster, etc
There are a series of websites that offer very similar softphones and low international rates. VoIPStunt and VoIPBuster, for example, are sister sites owned by European company Betamax.
You can download their softphones for free and test dial for 1 minute. However, you must have purchased €10 worth of credit to take advantage of any "free" destination countries. After some usage, an account runs out of any free destinations and defaults to normal country rates, which uses up credit.
VoIPStunt and VoIPBuster offer softphones for PC, browser, and mobile devices.
There are many softphones available for free. Using the service, however, is limited. Skype is great for video chat and conference calling with other Skype users. iCall is good for quick, free calls to landlines or mobile phones using your computer.
Many home VoIP service providers also offer softphones, so you can still have emergency calling and a primary home phone system with your computer as a secondary phone.