If you use Gmail for email, you can also use it to make free phone calls.

The calls are free to any other U.S. phone, whether landline or cell phone until the end of 2010. Calls to other countries are not free, but just a few cents. All you need is a microphone plugged into your computer; most laptops have one built in.  We tried making calls and they were clear.

Start by clicking “call phone” on the left of the Gmail screen. You don’t have to know the phone number to call it from Gmail. As long as you’ve kept your contact list up to date, you can simply type their name into the call box and Gmail will automatically retrieve the number and dial it for you. Often, just the first few letters are enough. If your contact has more than one number, click the one you want.

If the person you call has Caller ID, they will think you are calling from California. That’s because Google has a single phone number dedicated to outbound calls, and it’s a Northern California number. If you have a “Google Voice” account, however, Caller ID will display your own Google dedicated number.  Google Voice is very handy. Anyone who calls your Google Voice number will ring all of your phones. You can choose a keyword to make that Voice number memorable. Ours ends in “bob-joy.”

Voice is free from but requires that you have a Gmail account. Those accounts are also free. If you want one, you can sign up at About 300 million people have already done so. You can see the phone call rates for other countries at

This is heavy competition for Skype, the leader in free Internet phone calling, which by the way has announced plans for its initial public stock offering soon. Skype keeps getting better, however, so we’re not counting them out. Besides using Skype on any computer, you can use it for free calling on any Verizon smart phone, iPhone, and a dozen Nokia models.

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