E-mailing your best pal in Thailand or family in Toledo is cheaper than running up a long-distance phone bill. But even brimming with smiley emoticons, text messages lack a certain personal touch. Good news: You can now reach out and touch someone -- by phone -- using your high-speed Net connection.
A crop of new "Internet telephony," or voice-over-IP (VoIP), services allow you to connect your phone directly to your DSL or cable line instead of to the public telephone network, dramatically shrinking bills if you're a big-time long-distance user (imagine calling France for 5 cents a minute, or half the typical rate). Plus, telephony provides nifty Web-based features unavailable with regular phones; in addition to getting voice mail and caller ID, you can select your own area code and even take your phone number with you, for example. Here's how to set yourself up:
PICK YOUR PROVIDER. You've got two types of service to choose from. Companies offering the first type allow you to use your regular home phone, and their services are compatible with both PCs and Macs. In this camp are upstarts such as Vonage, as well as phone giants AT&T and Verizon. Vonage (www.vonage.com) offers unlimited calling in the United States and Canada for $29.99 a month, with international rates starting at 4 cents a minute. AT&T (www.callvantage.com) offers unlimited service to the United States and Canada for $34.99 per month, with international rates starting at 4 cents a minute. Verizon's service (www22.verizon.com/ForYourHome/VOIP/VOIPHome.aspx) runs $39.95, with international rates starting at 4 cents a minute (3 cents for Canada). All three services will send you a free analog-to-digital phone adapter, which you need to attach your phone directly to your Net connection.
The second approach to telephony is slightly more complicated, requiring software installation and a specific telephone or headset. The good thing is that when it comes to monthly charges, the services under this umbrella offer a price that can't be beat: free. Skype (www.skype.com) is the most popular thanks to its easy-to-use software, according to Mark Main, an analyst for technology consulting company Ovum. It requires either a PC-based phone (the one it recommends costs $54.99; details on its Web site) or a standard $20 computer headset (available at RadioShack). The great thing: After that, you get free calls to anyone else using Skype, or the company can connect your calls to regular phones (land-line or mobile) at low per-minute rates (about 2 cents a minute for domestic and international calls).
Mac users who want to try this kind of service have a little waiting to do: Skype and others, including Net2Phone (www.net2phone.com) and Dialpad Communications (www.dialpad.com), are testing Mac-based products but haven't released them yet. One software option that is available now: the $15 Empower Pro Internet Phone (www.empowerprophone.com). Download it, and you can call other Mac users over the Net.
HOOK IT UP. Now, you're ready to plug away. With AT&T, Vonage and Verizon, just connect your adapter to your cable or DSL modem, then hook your regular home telephone (and your computer) to it. No software installation is required. If you go with a Skype-type service, plug your special phone into your computer and download and install the dialing software from the company's Web site.
LOG ON. Next, you can select the features you want by simply visiting your provider's Web site and filling out some forms. You can have your voice mail messages sent to you by e-mail, for example (most services also offer phone-based voice mail). And during busy times, you can send calls directly to voice mail, with certain numbers designated to always ring through -- handy for when you want to hear only from your honey. Moving away? In many cases, you can take your phone number, area code and all, with you.
GET CRISIS-READY. Internet phones can call 911, but they don't automatically relay your address to emergency operators. So while you're online, be sure to register your home address for 911 use; your service provider will pass it along for you. Also be aware that Net phones won't work during electrical outages, nor are they listed in the White Pages. So it may be wise to keep your regular phone connected under a budget plan -- assuming that last un-severed old-school connection doesn't lessen the luster of your new geek cred.
Want to know how to do something? Send your questions to email@example.com.