Why buy an Internet telephone?

It's good to talk, says David Phelan, and it's even better if it's cheap too

VOIP - which stands for "voice over internet protocol" and has become the generic term for internet telephony - is the technology of the moment. If it has baffled you, don't feel bad - it's a bit of a minefield. In essence, though, it's just another way of making phone calls. You need a computer with a broadband internet connection but the advantage is that calls, even to other countries, can be cheap or even free.

If you think there's no such thing as a free lunch, you're right. Some telecom suppliers promise to give you broadband internet for free, but you'll have to pay for something (such as an inclusive calls package) to qualify. Also, free calls are often only available within a particular network. For example, Tesco Internet offers free calls from one Tesco user to another, and Skype (probably the best-known VOIP service) also has free calls within its own network, but calls to regular phone numbers require SkypeOut, which has cheap, but not free, calls.

Should you use VOIP? If you travel overseas with a laptop, you can save a lot of money on hotel-room phone charges. But if you don't have broadband, or even a computer, say, then you may find it takes a long time to recoup this initial outlay. Call quality is variable - some users feel that there's less crackle through VOIP, especially internationally, but it's also often the case that the technology can cause an increase in distracting voice delays.

Philips VOIP 321 phone, £69.99

You may not want to make all your calls via VOIP, so the VOIP321 from Philips handles both internet calls and regular phone calls. It's a DECT handset - that is, it's cordless and digital so call quality is especially clear for landline calls. It connects both to the BT landline socket and by USB to your computer. Pressing the Skype key brings up the Skype contacts list. And it has a series of ring profiles so you know whether you're receiving a Skype or a regular call.

Ups Handy for Skype and BT calls.

Downs Your computer needs to be switched on to use it for Skype calls.

Contact Philips (tel: 09061 010 016; www.philips.co.uk)

Netgear Skype wi-fi phone, £169

The name most associated with VOIP is Skype. It recognised it was a simple way for its broadband-equipped users to talk to each other free. It's easy to use. Download the Skype software and call other users. Calling regular phone numbers is cheap (less than 0.5p per minute). And this phone from Netgear has wi-fi, so you don't have to be sitting next to your computer, you merely have to be within the range of your home wireless network. However, it doesn't have a browser on it so you can't use it in public wi-fi hotspots that need authentication to get on to them.

Ups Neat styling.

Downs Unsuitable for most wi-fi hotspots.

Contacts www.netgear.co.uk

Verball, £29.95

Finally, VOIP needn't be dull. Verballs are basically speakerphones that connect to your computer and work with various internet telephony programs, though it's optimised for Skype. Verballs come in several guises, including a football kit-wearing model called Striker and one named Britney with big blonde hair. Call quality is not bad, and is abetted by the Verball waving its arms and flashing its horns every time a call comes in. Once you've answered, you then talk to the creature which does its best to move its mouth in time to the words of your caller.

Ups Cute and funny.

Downs Tacky.

Contact www.firebox.com

Tesco E337 Internet Phone, £14.97

Tesco aims to make its service as easy to use as a fixed-line phone, so all you need to do is install the software and plug in the phone. Any user can call any other Tesco internet phone for free. Calls to other numbers are 2p per minute to other UK landlines or 25 countries worldwide.

Ups Cheap and simple.

Downs Tethered to the computer.

Contact Tesco (tel: 0845 045 0130; www.tescointernetphone.com)

Vonage V , £19.99 for the phone, £7.99 monthly subscription

Billed as the smallest phone in the world, the V Phone is a USB drive which contains all the software you need to make VOIP calls - so you could use a computer in a business centre (it's not Mac compatible). You're given a standard UK phone number, and calls are charged accordingly. Since the subscription includes unlimited UK and Ireland landline calls, your calls to another UK number would be free even if you're in a hotel in Los Angeles. This also has the advantage that as far as your callers are concerned you appear to be in London, too. Handy if you're a philanderer, perhaps.

Ups Very portable.

Downs In our tests, the sound was poor.

Contact www.vonage.co.uk