New VoIP users often ask us what equipment they'll need to make and receive calls with their new service. Since the necessary equipment can vary depending on your service and the features you need, we've compiled the following rundown of all your VoIP options.
VoIP calls can be made in three main ways:
- With an analog telephone adaptor (ATA)
- Through an IP phone
- From computer to computer
Each of these methods requires different equipment and has its own pros and cons. The first two options are the ones you'll choose from if you're replacing your home or business telephone service with VoIP, while the third is best suited for occasional voice or video calls. Let's run through the options:
Analog Telephone Adaptors (ATAs)
If you're planning to replace your home telephone service with VoIP, by far the simplest and most common solution is the first: an analog telephone adaptor, or ATA. An ATA is a small device, usually a plastic box that looks a lot like a cable modem or router. ATAs allow you to continue using your regular telephone with VoIP service. Generally, ATAs have an ethernet port, where you will plug in a cable from your router to provide the adaptor with an internet connection, and a traditional phone port, where you will connect the ATA to a regular home or office phone using the cable that came with your phone. Most ATAs also have a few lights on the top, a power plug into the wall, and maybe a display window.
You don't need to worry about picking out the right ATA because your VoIP provider will almost certainly send the proper device to you when you sign up for their service. Sometimes an ATA is included in the price of service, and sometimes the provider will charge an extra fee for the equipment. Most adaptors are pretty user-friendly, fairly inexpensive, and really need only be plugged in to the internet, the phone, and a power supply to work right out of the box. Our top choices for VoIP service, including Vonage, VOIPo, Phone Power, and Phone.com provide users with ATAs.
A few providers, mostly business-focused companies, do not provide ATAs, but instead require that you purchase an IP phone, also known as a VoIP-enabled phone. Instead of having a traditional phone line port, an IP phone will have a port for an ethernet cable, which looks a lot like an oversized phone jack. Essentially, an IP phone incorporates the equipment in an ATA right into the phone, bypassing the need to have a separate device to connect your phone to the internet. VoIP phones run from about $70 to several hundred dollars apiece, depending on their features and the number of lines they're equipped to handle. Most VoIP services that require or recommend IP phones offer a few models or can direct you to their preferred options, including our top business VoIP choices, Nextivia, Vocalocity, Apptix, and Phonebooth.
There is usually little or no appreciable difference between an IP phone and a traditional phone in call quality or experience for a basic phone call. Where you will notice the difference is in some of the extra features VoIP can provide, like visual voicemail, access to a more complex contact list, or a virtual call attendant. These features, when available, can usually be accessed by ATA users through their computers.
Overwhelmingly, VoIP users with IP phones are businesses who require advanced calling features. The one exception to this has traditionally been Skype users, since Skype's telephone-based VoIP service initially worked only with an IP phone. However, Skype has recently begun offering an ATA option as well, which is a less expensive alternative to replacing your home phone system with an IP phone system.
Computer to Computer
If you've used Skype or another video or voice-chatting program over your computer, this is the method you're familiar with. There are a couple of free options for video and voice chatting available, including Skype, GChat, and iChat. These programs require no equipment beyond your computer, maybe a webcam, and a fast enough internet connection. The downside of computer-to-computer VoIP is that you can generally only call for free from one computer to another and the recipient must already be at the computer and signed in to receive your call. Unless you purchase a headset or dedicated microphone, sound quality can be shaky and echoey. If you wish to call regular landline phones with a computer-based VoIP system, you generally must pay an additional fee, often by the minute.
Computer-to-computer VoIP will not replace a traditional telephone service very well unless you can spend all your time at the computer and logged in, but it can be a good choice for staying in touch inexpensively with a friend or family member who is overseas or across the country, provided you can schedule your call time in advance.
If you have any other questions about VoIP equipment, check out our VoIP section here.
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