Road test part IV: Skype

December 03, 2013 6:00 AM EST

During a 10-day vacation trip across the U.K. and Scotland I relied on Skype on my Android phone and on a laptop to make calls to family in the U.S. I had little choice, since the radio technology in my Verizon mobile phone is incompatible with European carrier services. Rather than leave my smartphone at home, I loaded up a handful of mobile communication apps -- Vonage Extensions, Skype, Google+ Hangouts and Groove IP Lite – and used them over Wi-Fi whenever and wherever I could. I’ve already talked about my overall experiences relying on voice over IP on Wi-Fi, as well as how Vonage Extensions, Google+ Hangouts and Groove IP Lite performed. Here’s how Skype worked out.

Skype, now owned by Microsoft, is one of the oldest and most popular voice calling applications out there, and the familiar user interface is one I occasionally use from my laptop when in the office. Microsoft offers free downloadable versions of the Skype application for a wide variety of desktop and mobile platforms, including Android and iOS, and supports calls over 3G and Wi-Fi. Voice and video calls to other Skype users are free, but you’ll need to pay a monthly fee or establish a prepaid Skype account and pay per minute to call telephone numbers. Fortunately, prices are reasonable. The monthly fee for unlimited calling in the U.S. is $2.99 or you can pay 2.3 cents per minute using a prepaid Skype Credits account. A call to my daughter’s cell phone in Italy from the U.S. costs 8 cents per minute, while a call to a landline there is just .7 cents per minute.  You can also sign up for a telephone number that your friends use to call you on Skype. While Google offers a number for free, Skype charges $6 per month.

I spent most of my time using the mobile app, although I did have the laptop with me and it was nice in the hotel at the end of the day to be able to use the bigger screen for a Skype-to-Skype video call. Unlike Vonage Extensions, and Groove IP Lite, Skype didn’t integrate with the contact list on my Android phone, displaying instead the Skype address book. But it does offer a dial pad screen for placing calls.

As with the other apps I used during my trip, call quality varied widely with the quality of the Wi-Fi connection. And calls made from my daughter’s apartment in Florence, Italy were sometimes sketchy, even when she called while standing a few feet from her Wi-Fi router. I suspect, however, that this was a problem with the quality of service, as other apps experienced similar problems from that location. Overall, however, the app was pretty much bulletproof.

Not to Decide is to Decide

So what was the preferred calling app for the trip? Because I have Vonage service at home and calls were free, I tended to reach for the Vonage Extensions app first. The basic dialer interface was clean and easy to use, and integration with the Android phone’s address book was seamless. But you need a monthly subscription to Vonage's VoIP service to use it.

Hangouts doesn’t support voice calling to telephone numbers on Android as yet (a Google spokesperson says the company is in the middle of integrating Google Voice into Hangouts), but the version for iOS does. My daughter, who has an iPhone, can make free calls from her apartment in Florence to our home telephone number using Hangouts, and you can do the same from your browser on a desktop. Groove IP Lite, an app that uses Google Voice to make free calls, worked fine, but was never sanctioned by Google and won’t work after May 4, 2014.

I am envious of the Hangouts dial pad interface on my daughter’s iPhone, however, and I look forward to the day when Google adds an outbound PSTN calling feature to Hangouts for Android.

I tended to reach for Skype last for calling, and first for prearranged in-network video chats, probably because I’ve used it for a long time. Although Skype’s per-minute fee for telephone calling was low, free was even better.

It’s also nice to have an alternative to PSTN calling. While both Skype and Google offer free in-network calls to other users of their services who are online, Vonage does not - and Vonage doesn’t allow you to answer incoming calls from the Vonage Extensions mobile app.

There are times when an in-network Skype-to-Skype or Hangouts-to-Hangouts video or voice call works more smoothly than calling into the PSTN, such as when calling to the wonky mobile phone service my daughter uses in Italy. And when an update broke the Vonage Extensions app on my daughter’s phone and it couldn’t be fixed, she could still do Skype-to-Skype calls, as well as Google+ Hangouts calls to her family and other Hangouts users. I keep Skype running for work purposes, and both my wife and I tend to be logged into our Gmail accounts during the business day and are therefore available on Hangouts.

In the end you go where your network is, and in my case I have contacts who are regular users of both Skype and Hangouts. I’ve found good reason to keep all of these tools handy.

Update: Just spent a day at a hospital where no cell service was availble. They did have Wi-Fi, but none of the mobile voice calling apps I tested would work over it. I could, however, use my mobile browser and email apps. Lesson learned: Mobile Wi-Fi calling apps don't work if the network on which you're riding blocks your ablity to use those services.