If you need a product that can turn a conventional phone into a voice over IP phone, and route calls over the Internet, then Vonage is worth considering.

Vonage is in fact a service, not a product, and a consumer service at that, but performs a job that many businesses will find useful. Like other Internet telephony services, it uses a subscriber's broadband connection and offers cheap calls, but in fact, its main selling points are the convenience of set-up, and the other features it offers.

What do you get? When you sign up for Vonage, you get a router made by Cisco subsidiary Linksys, which has an Ethernet uplink, three Ethernet ports, and two telephone sockets. There is a set-up CD which included a set-up wizard, and a 60-day trial for Norton Internet Security, neither of which we needed.

The Vonage product is a ludicrously easy piece of networking kit to set up. We plugged it into our Internet router (an aged Netgear), plugged in a normal phone, and powered it on. The lights flashed for a minute or two, and we had dial-tone. This is, as Vonage intends it to be, almost as easy as plugging in a normal phone to the PSTN socket.

We made phone calls in a completely ordinary way, and the call quality was by and large, as good as the regular PSTN phone network. There were occasional drop-outs, but the phone was instantly, and very simply, useable. We tried a variety of phones, including a DECT cordless, and all worked.

There was one small problem. The disc and paper instructions said to plug our PC into one of the Vonage router's Ethernet ports. When we did this, we could use the Internet after a fashion, but secure web pages timed out and email went sluggishly, presumably because the connection now went through two Ethernet segments with DHCP on them. We plugged the PC back into its old router port, and everything worked fine. Vonage needs to inlcude instructions for router users - at the risk of making set-up look more complicated.

What does it cost?
Vonage costs £9.99 a month, for which we get a Vonage phone number, unlimited free calls within the UK and cheap rates (from 5p a minute) to mobiles. International calls are billed at different rates depending on country, from 2p per minute to the US to £1.60 per minute for one or two exotic destinations.

When we called other people, the call appeared to them like a regular phone call. They could get our Vonage phone number (a London code) from Caller ID or 1471, and phone us.

Vonage's price is cheaper than BT, but price alone is not enough. The price savings per call can be pretty minimal compared with a prefix-dialler service like Call 18866, and it would take a fairly high phone usage to offset the £9.99 a month Vonage charge.

So why do it?
Vonage's extra features are enough to make many users swear by it.

The basic service includes instant billing, which we accessed on our account page at Vonage's site.

Vonage also has a very good voicemail service, which forwards messages as audio files to our email address. The files can also be saved on a hard disk, to provide an audit trail for businesses.

It is possible to take the Vonage router on journeys, and make and receive Vonage calls anywhere where it can be connected to an Ethernet port. If you move office, you can take the new phone number with you - even to another country.

The service also supports call waiting, callerID, call forwarding to other numbers, and other features. Incoming calls can be diverted, so that the Vonage phone and the landline ring simultaneously, or in sequence.

The router has a second phone port, which can be activated for a second phone, at £9.99 per month, or as a fax line for £5.99 (the fax line is usable for ov ice, but the quality of service characteristics are optimised for data). For business users, Vonage offers a package with voice and fax lines, plus a bundle of pre-paid fax minutes, for £18.99.

Other extras are more enticing. Vonage can sell you a number in several other cities round the world, for £2.99 a month. This can allow your New York friends and customers to call you at US local rates.

Vonage also offers a softphone to run on a PC, for £5.99 per month. This is good, because it puts those Internet telephony calls on your Vonage bill, and lets you have voicemail on your softphone. Business users, and existing Vonage customers may adopt this, while those on a strict budget, may prefer services like Skype, which give you a free softphone, and let you buy credit for outgoing calls without a monthly charge.

Future plans
Vonage was launched in the UK in May, and plans to provide more business-oriented services, although Vonage CEO Jeffrey Citron believes that the consumer market is the key (see our interview with Citron). Vonage is currently testing a Wi-Fi phone in the US, which is expected to launch in the UK soon.

OUR VERDICT

This is a good, simple phone service with unlimited calls in the UK and cheap ones abroad. Takes the technical issues out of Internet telephony, and passes on decent savings and good features.