Thanks to the wonder that is Voice over Internet Protocol, better known as VoIP, people have long been able to make phone calls from computers or, say, an iPod Touch.
But a new iPhone case with a built-in 3G-to-Wi-Fi hot spot comes closest yet to turning an iPod Touch into a real phone. The case, called the ZTE Peel, wraps around a second- or third-generation iPod Touch to connect it to Sprint's 3G data service.
That means that by using a VoIP application, you can make phone calls on the move just as you can from a mobile phone.
You can also use it to connect a fourth-generation iPod Touch to the Internet just by having the Wi-Fi hot spot case nearby, but it will not snugly fit the fourth-generation Touch.
Two devices can connect to the Peel at a time, so you can also use it to connect a Windows or Macintosh computer to the Internet at the same time you are using your faux phone.
The Peel, which becomes available on Sunday, will retail for $80 through Sprint online. It will also require a $30 monthly service plan, which allows for 1 GB of data. That is about the equivalent of one hour of YouTube streaming, 250 Facebook uploads or 5,000 one-page e-mails.
When AT&T offered tiered data packages last June, Skype estimated that one minute of VoIP over 3G would use about 0.345 MB of data. So according to Skype, 1 GB of data should be about 2900 minutes of VoIP voice calls. That's for a $30 a month fee. If the Peel works as promised ... bargain!
Whether or not it's as good a deal as buying an iPhone depends on whether you already have an iPod or not. A 32 GB iPod Touch costs $299, the same as the 32 GB iPhone 4.
Comparing the cost of plans with the iPhone 4, still available only through AT&T, you would have to have a voice plan the costs $40 to $70 a month, a data plan that costs $15 to $45 a month, and there's an optional messaging plan that costs $5 to $20 a month. The low total would be $55 a month for talk and data with no texting.
The Peel-iPod-Sprint plan combo is less expensive, but until we know how much talk you get, it's premature to call it a bargain. If you need a phone, I suspect you'll still be better off with the proper iPhone. I'll know more after testing the Peel in a week or so. If you just want to add a phonelike feature at a moderate price, the Peel might appeal.