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It's sort of a calling card filled with unlimited minutes--but it won't fit in your pocket. Ooma is a very different take on VoIP: Instead of paying monthly, you buy a deskset/answering machine for $399 ($599 starting January 1), which gives you unlimited U.S. phone minutes free for life (at least, the life of the hardware). Like most VoIP systems, Ooma doesn't come with a handset; you use the wireline or non-cellular wireless phones you already own. It helps if you keep your landline service, too, because Ooma has a peer-to-peer architecture that avoids phone tolls by routing calls over the internet from your landline to another landline near the party you're calling. Price and call quality will stay the same if you choose to drop your landline provider, says Ooma co-founder Dennis Peng, but you won't keep your phone number, and 911 calls may be delayed during a power outage.
Installation of the two-piece system is quick and unintrusive. You plug lines from both your internet/Wi-Fi network connection and your landline into Ooma Hub. You bring another room's handset into the loop by plugging it into Ooma Scout, which comes with the system, and plugging Scout into another phone jack (additional Scouts are $39.95 each).
Ooma Hub is a little white slice with big, well-lit buttons for sending calls to voice mail or toggling between phone lines; like an office deskset, Ooma provides two separate phone lines on one phone number. Also included are standard VoIP features like call screening, three-way conferencing, call forwarding directly to digital voice mail and messages downloadable as MP3s to your PC. International calls are billed at per-minute rates comparable to Skype's, Peng says.
Call quality is good, but the continued availability of your bucket o' minutes depends on the hardware and the company's longevity. If Ooma breaks in the first year, you get another free; after that, it's full price. But in the days of telecom monopolies, you could burn $400 on long-distance calls a month, so you may realize a quick payback.