Apple’s iPhone has changed the game since its debut almost two years ago — building a powerful platform for on-the-go Web browsing and applications, in addition to making cellphone calls. Just a few months after the iPhone appeared, Apple (AAPL) introduced the very similar iPod Touch, which didn’t get as much attention, perhaps because its name understates the scope of its features.
The Touch resembles the iPhone, only thinner, with the same multitouch screen, fast Web browser, iPod media player and ability to run almost all of the 35,000 apps in Apple’s App Store. It doesn’t have a camera, or a few other iPhone features, and it can’t connect to cellphone networks, relying instead on Wi-Fi for its Internet connection.
The Touch has caught on: Apple recently indicated that it has sold 16 million of them. One reason for the popularity is that its freedom from a phone company eliminates pricey monthly bills. But the Touch can’t easily make voice calls right out of the box. So this week, I tested ways to make the Touch even more like the iPhone: apps that use the Internet to make phone calls.
Three Apps to Test
I successfully tested three apps that can be downloaded free of charge from Apple’s App store — Skype, Fring and Truphone. Skype gave me the best connection, and my friends wouldn’t have known I was using it unless I told them. (Skype’s app is popular, with 2.8 million downloads in just four weeks.) Fring and Truphone let users make calls using Skype’s service within their apps, and they also run other programs like AIM and MSN Messenger. But Fring’s phone calls didn’t sound as clear, and I had technical difficulties with Truphone.
The downside to using these apps on an iPod Touch is that you must be connected to a Wi-Fi network. For a lot of people who work and live in areas surrounded by wireless networks, this won’t be a problem most of the time. But in those moments when mobility comes into play — like driving in a car — you’ll miss having a steady line through a phone carrier. You also can’t use these apps to make 911 emergency calls.
Another negative is that third-party applications can’t run in the background on the iPhone and iPod Touch. This means you can’t use a Touch for browsing the Web or reading email while waiting for a call from a friend via Skype or Fring. Fring offers an option that emails you when friends call or message, so you can sign on and call them back. Truphone has built-in voicemail. Skype doesn’t currently offer a notification feature.
(The next version of the iPhone OS is supposed to include notifications, which could improve the usability of these apps.)
The Touch comes in three models: an eight-gigabyte version for $229; a 16-gigabyte for $299; and a 32-gigabyte for $399. Because the Touch doesn’t have a built-in microphone, you must use something like the iPhone Stereo Headset, which costs $29 and has a microphone in its cord.
Free Skype accounts, which can be used for making calls with all three apps, take just a few minutes to set up. And calls from one Skype user to another are free. Skype calls to landlines or cellphones are relatively cheap. Skype Credit, a pay-as-you-go plan, charges 2.1 cents a minute in the U.S.; Skype Subscription is a flat monthly fee that costs $2.95 when used for calls made to and from the U.S. A monthly fee of $5.95 gets you unlimited calling to one country, and $12.95 a month pays for unlimited calls to 42 countries.
The Skype, Fring, and Truphone apps let you easily import contact names and numbers from your iPod Touch. They also enable instant messaging between you and your friends. Delightful sounds indicate incoming messages and calls, and these can be heard even when the headset isn’t plugged in — as long as you put the Touch down without closing the app.
I had the most success with the Skype app. My Skype-to-landline calls sounded perfect to my boss on the other end. Skype-to-cell and Skype-to-Skype calls sounded good, but weren’t always as clear; I used my Skype account to call a friend in New Orleans on her Skype account, and I heard echoing a couple times during our 30-minute chat. Skype says this could be attributed to the fact she was on a laptop.
Fring calls made using Skype — to landlines, cellphones, and other Skype contacts — weren’t as good as the Skype app. Friends’ voices sounded slightly shaky and muffled. This kind of thing isn’t the end of the world in a quick chat, but could be a real burden during an important call. Fring offers a long list of add-ons, letting you sign in to various accounts all within the same app. These include Skype, MSN Messenger, ICQ, Google (GOOG) Talk, Twitter, Yahoo (YHOO), and AIM.
Truphone calls to landlines and cellphones sounded a bit fuzzy. Truphone is a service unto itself, like Skype, with free calls between Truphone users, pay-as-you-go plans and monthly plans. Like Fring, Truphone enables use of other programs within its app, like AIM and Yahoo Messenger. And it includes free voicemail. But the app didn’t always work for me.
A feature in all three apps lets you call an automated voice test line so you can hear how you sound before calling others.
These iPod Touch apps aren’t perfect, and the next version of the iPhone OS may let them can run more productively in the background. But making calls from the iPod Touch is a pretty cool experience when it works well, and free or low-price plans are an attractive alternative to cellphone carriers.
Edited By Walter S. Mossberg