Digital Crave

Make free long distance calls on your smartphone? App-solutely

Digital Crave

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Summer is here, which means more time traveling for work or play.

Of course you'll bring your smartphone with you — heck, it's a lifeline to your world, no doubt — but no one wants to come home to a nasty surprise on your wireless phone bill.

Roam if you want to, as the B-52's song goes, but be aware there are a few smart ways to use data services and make calls without breaking the bank. In fact, here we look at a few handy apps that let you call the U.S. or Canada for free using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

So long as you're using a wireless network — such as the free Wi-Fi offered by many restaurants, coffee shops, hotels and airports — you can use your smartphone to call others without spending a dime.

For example, the aptly-named Free Calls with magicJack (for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch) lets you make free calls to any U.S. or Canadian landline or mobile phone number — even if you're overseas.

On a recent trip to New Zealand, I used this app on an iPad via my hotel's free Wi-Fi connection by the pool. Call quality was quite good, with very little echo as found with some VoIP services. The app also can import your contacts, so you can dial by name.

While the app is from the folks at magicJack, you don't not need to own one of the magicJack dongles advertised on TV — it's a separate product altogether. But those who do use the hardware version can log in with their magicJack phone number.

Otherwise, you can choose not to register (which is free) and make outgoing calls only or sign up for an account to receive a free incoming number and voicemail support. Keep in mind, however, you'll get a funky-looking number that starts and ends with an asterisk (such as *01234567*), which requires someone to first call a 305 # to reach you (which is also free over Wi-Fi when using magicJack, of course).

Another solution, NetTalk — for iOS and Android -- also lets you call any ten-digit North American phone number for free, but there is no incoming call option. Like magicJack, NetTalk is also a hardware dongle -- but you don't need it to make free calls on your smartphone.

The app requires you to first sign up for an account, but I used an alternate Yahoo! web mail address in case I experienced spam in exchange for this "free" service. (If you haven't done so already, I highly recommend creating a secondary email address for registering services or products). Other than verifying my account info a minute after filling out some basic details, I was up and running -- and haven't yet received any junk mail.

This mobile app also lets you record calls, too, which can come in handy, plus you can engage in group conversations (dial 2663 for a bridge) and the app includes free automated 411 directory assistance. Like Free Calls with magicJack, NetTalk also lets you import your contacts from the smartphone's Contacts app.

Finally, Google has added the ability for Google+ users to make free phone calls from within the Hangouts video chat application — and supporting up to nine friends.

Those who use the Google+ app for Android or iOS can opt to voice chat, which is free when used in a Wi-Fi network. to dial in someone when in a hangout, click on the "Invite" button and then on the "+telephone" link. Now you can enter the number you want to dial and hit "Add." You can only call one number at a time.

Adding voice chat to Hangouts isn't much of a surprise given the fact the company has been integrating its Google Voice technology to other services, such as Gmail.

Photo credit: Copyright © 2012 HTC Corporation. All rights reserved.

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