I keep seeing the television ads for the magicJack claiming that it can replace my regular phone line. At $20 a year it is a lot cheaper than Vonage, but does it work? — Clayton

For those that have yet to enter the world of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), commercially available products from companies such as magicJack and Vonage allow you to plug ordinary telephones into an Internet-enabled device to make unlimited local and long-distance phone calls.

Not only do they eliminate the need to pay for traditional land-lines and offer free domestic long-distance, they allow you to take your home phone with you wherever you travel. VoIP phone numbers are not tied to a physical location; they are associated with a specific hardware device which can be plugged into any high-speed Internet connection for domestic service (and sometimes international as well).

If you read the user reviews for magicJack around the Web, they all seem to either be raving accolades or abject hatred for the product. Those that like it find it to be easy to install and provide great sound quality while those that experience problems seem to feel further tortured by the fact that magicJack has no phone support — only live chat support.

In fairness, a service that only charges $20 per year can’t justify lavish customer support, so keep that in mind when making your decision.

There are several major differences between magicJack and Vonage both in features and cost.

magicJack is a cheaper service ($20 per year + $40 for the device) but in addition to a high-speed Internet connection, it relies on your computer (it plugs into a USB port) and special software in order to work. This means that if your computer is turned off, you can’t place or receive phone calls with the magicJack.

Vonage costs more ($25 per month) but does not rely on your computer in order to provide phone service (only a high-speed Internet connection), which seems to be the biggest problem reported by magicJack users that were not happy with the device.

Because magicJack relies on more variables, it has more points of failure; your Internet connection, computer and the special software must all be properly functioning in order to get phone service.

Both services can provide traditional phone service via a high-speed Internet connection, but Vonage is less likely to experience the problems being reported by magicJack users because there are no compatibility issues with software or hardware, but Vonage is also significantly more expensive.

Both of these products are at the mercy of your Internet connection, so if you experience erratic speeds when surfing, you may want to rethink any Internet-based phone product.

They both offer voice messaging, caller ID, call forwarding and if you take the hardware with you on the road, you can take phone calls as if you were at your home. Vonage offers phone number portability (transfer your existing phone number) and some free International connections while magicJack requires you to use a new phone number and charges for International calls (unless the recipient also has a magicJack).

If the 30-day no risk offer from magicJack seems like a no-brainer, be forewarned that another big complaint from many users is the difficulty in getting the product returned and refunded (remember, no phone number to call).

In either case, if you decide to replace your home phone with one of these services, be sure to hang on to your old phone line until you are sure that your choice is reliable enough to replace your existing service.

Unless you need to send faxes from your home, you could also consider joining the ranks that have rid themselves of everything but a cell phone and a Skype account on their computer.

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services, Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show, and Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers.