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On Wednesday, Google introduced the ability to place phone calls to landlines and cellphones directly from Gmail. In order for the feature to work, users need to be signed into their Gmail account in a Web browser. It also requires that users download and install the voice and video browser plug-in. (This plug-in also lets users conduct video and voice chats from Gmail.) How does it work?
The feature is somewhat buried in the Gmail chat client, which is to the left of most users' inboxes. There is a tiny little phone icon. Press it, and a dialer opens up in the Gmail window.
As with most Google services, it has a somewhat bland user interface, but it does the trick.
There are two tabs at the top of the dialing tool. The first, and default, tab is for the dialer itself. The second is a small clock, and when clicked reveals your calling history. If you have a Google Voice number, your Google Voice history is included in this calling history list. That includes calls made from the Google Voice Android application. Those who you call will see your Google Voice number in their caller ID, though Google Voice isn't required for the Gmail calling feature to work.
Using your mouse, or the number keys on your keypad, it is a cinch to dial numbers. Alternately, if you type names, the dialer will sort through your contact list instantly as you spell and offer suggestions. Once you've found or dialed the number you want, hit the big "Call" button at the bottom.
Calls connected quite quickly. The feature runs via Voice over Internet Protocol technology, and can be used to reach out to real-world phone numbers. Need to call the pharmacy, but your cell phone is charging across the room? No problem, do it from the comfort of your desk, right from your browser.
Calls work just fine with a PC's built-in microphone and speakers. Users can also choose to attach a headset to their machine to make calls more private.
How was call quality? Calls were about on par with what you expect from VoIP. They were somewhat muffled and "digital" sounding. Several of the people with whom I spoke noted that I sounded "echo-y." In other words, we're not talking pin-drop quality here, but an average VoIP client. I tested several Skype-to-Skype calls for comparison, and Skype performed at about the same level.
When the call concludes, Gmail gives you the ability to rate the quality of the call from one to three stars. I rated all the calls at three stars.
Right now, it supports free calls to U.S. and Canadian numbers, and offers low rates to other countries. Users can purchase credits for international calls through Google Check-Out. Remaining credits are displayed in dollar amounts at the top of the dialer so you know how much you have left in your account.
How does Skype beat this service? Well, number one, Skype is entrenched and well-known. Skype is available on most computing platforms, including the most popular smartphones. Skype also offers free Skype-to-Skype calling from/to anywhere. Right now, Google calling only works from the U.S.
For international travelers who find themselves abroad, the new Google calling service won't work. They will have to resort to Skype.
On top of that, if your business or school uses Google Apps, the Gmail calling feature isn't available yet. It appears that Google is going after consumers, first. Google would only say that it is working to bring the service to Google Apps users soon. My guess is Google Apps users will have more features and/or options, when compared to consumers.
In sum, it's simple, it's easy, it works. Will I use it? Definitely. Will it replace my real phones? Definitely not.