Fring logo

Here's a twist on the all-in-one cell phone chat client--make it call your contacts too.

Fring is a free VoIP and chat client. The downloadable app harnesses your cell phone's Internet connection into phone calls and chats with buddies on Skype, Twitter, MSN Messenger, Google Talk, and ICQ. Your carrier will slap you with no accruing SMS fee, but you'd better have Wi-Fi reception or an unlimited data plan if you want to chat freely and stay in the black.

Fring groups all contacts, including those in your phone's address book, into a single list, highlighting icons at the top to indicate the service your buddy patronizes. You can click a buddy's name to call them, and choose the method of telephony--Fringo, GMS, Skype Out, or SIP. You can also select your service of choice from the call menu. To reach out and ping someone, you select the "chat" option from the menu and begin typing into the narrow field.

Fring chat window
Fring chat window (Credit: CNET Networks)

In all cases, recipients and initiators must have the voice aspect of their programs enabled. For example, Skype Out calls won't connect for Skype members lacking the paid account, contacts using outdated versions of MSN/Windows Live Messenger, or Google Talk buddies logged into Gmail, but not the actual Google Talk client. Contacts must also have headphones and microphones at the ready for calls to work.

This is where Fring's chat function becomes instrumental, a doorbell ring to probe if friends are available for a call. The chat experience itself is competent, but tends towards the basic. While Fring supports tabbed conversations, each discussion is identically named "Chat." New message notification is simply the most recent conversation popping up to dominate the screen. This unannounced presence can periodically derail your messaging flow, so you find yourself starting a sentence on one message and continuing it in another window. The Twitter feed is notorious for this. There's also no typographical distinction between buddies in the message window, so it's easy to get lost if either of you is prolific.

While basic in some respects, Fring offers users the convenience of grouping a range of popular communication clients into a single hub. Unfortunately, it appears to be one of those apps that isn't compatible with every carrier, handset, and OS combination. While chat worked very well on my Palm Treo 700 running Windows Mobile 5, not even the Fring test dial would ring through for me. However, other users have had success with Fring in their respective countries, so it's worth a try for an app that syncs with a multimedia communications lifestyle. Fring is also in beta, so we can look forward to expanded services and bug fixes as the service matures.

Download Fring for Symbian or Windows Mobile phones or get the link via SMS by registering online or by visiting the site from your mobile browser.

For other products that turn cell phones into free VoIP phones, see CNET coverage on Talkster and Mobivox.

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.