The telecommunications industry has come a long way since Ma Bell opened the first telephone exchange in the late 1800s. With the advent of fiber optics and wireless broadband technology, we no longer have a need for a dedicated phone connection, as today's data networks can carry much more than a simple voice conversation.
In the modern era, VoIP (Voice over IP) is the current and future standard in making phone calls. By using your all-purpose broadband data or wireless internet connection instead of dedicated copper telephone wires, call quality has the potential to be much higher with VoIP, and the overhead for providing such a service is drastically reduced.
Considering the reduced overhead, many VoIP services offer unlimited free calling these days. As this is a growing industry, there's still quite a bit of competition going on, so we have the benefit of varying options. To help you sort this all out, I'll compare 5 of the most popular Android VoIP services below.
All five of these apps offer free VoIP calling in one way or another. Some offer free calling within the United States to any U.S.-based phone number, while others will require that the party you're calling also has the same app installed on their device if you want to go the free route.
This comparison was done from the perspective of a U.S. resident, so the information provided below may vary depending on your country. The apps are listed in no particular order, but I'll offer my opinion on which is the best option at the end of this article.
As one of the pioneers of VoIP-based landline calling in the early 2000s, Vonage is a stalwart in this market even today. They've kept themselves near the top of the heap with a mobile app that offers free calling within the United States, as well as a few other nice features.
If both parties have the Vonage app installed, you'll be able to make free calls to anywhere in the world. Recently, Vonage has even added IP-based text messaging and a video calling feature, but both of these features require that all parties have the Vonage app installed.
Thanks to the popularity of its video calling feature, Skype has one of the largest user bases in this list. This helps mitigate the app's major downside when it comes to VoIP—free phone calls can only be made to other Skype users. On the plus side, Skype-to-Skype voice calls can be made worldwide without incurring any charges.
Video chat is definitely Skype's bread and butter, but IP-based text messaging is another great feature. Combine that with low calling rates to landlines and cell phones across the globe, and Skype is definitely one of the better VoIP options for Android.
Google has had many different communications platforms throughout the years, and they've recently combined several of these into an all-encompassing service called Hangouts. At its core, Hangouts is a hybrid of the old Google Chat and the soon-to-be-retired Google Voice.
This means with the base Hangouts app (which comes pre-installed on most Android phones), you can send messages and video chat with anyone who has Hangouts installed on one of their devices. To use Hangouts as a VoIP service, though, you'll have to install an additional app called Hangouts Dialer.
This enables you to call any number in the United States for free—even from your computer. If you've set up a Google Voice account in the past, you'll get the added benefits of free SMS messaging as well as a dedicated phone number that can be forwarded to other lines and devices.
If you've ever stood in line at a Walgreens or watched late-night informercials, you're surely aware of magicJack. The company got its start by selling USB dongles that offered free VoIP service for your landline, but it didn't stop there.
Nowadays, magicJack has a mobile app called magicApp, and most of their early MO is still present here. While the additional features may not be as extensive as other apps, you can make calls within the U.S. to any phone for free, and setup is a breeze.
Last but not least comes Viber, which is one of the longest-tenured Android VoIP apps on the market. New video calling and chat features have been added along the way, but the core experience still revolves around voice calls.
Viber requires that both parties have the app installed on their devices, in which case calls are free anywhere in the world. If you want to call a real phone number, though, you'll have to purchase "Viber Out" credits, which offer competitive long-distance rates.
After quite a bit of testing, it became clear that call quality was pretty much the same across all five of the aforementioned services. The biggest differentiating factor between these apps was the ability to call any number for free, and this is where Skype and Viber lose out.
Of the remaining three, I'd have to crown Hangouts the king. Considering that every aspect of this service is free (other than international calling), the added bonuses of crisp, clear video calling and integration of every feature across all major operating systems make Hangouts the clear winner in my opinion.