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Can a $70 Device Really Provide Decent Phone Service?

When I signed up with my cable company to add telephone service as part of a bundle, I knew I was getting a better deal than the phone company offered. At least I thought I was, until the fees and miscellaneous taxes started appearing on my itemized cable bill.

That’s when I started experimenting with Magic Jack, the low-cost ($39 for hardware plus first year of service) VoIP phone service. No hidden fees, taxes, monthly modem rental, or surcharges, and most of the same features (call forwarding, voice mail, unlimited local and long-distance calls) of my cable provider’s plan, using VoIP.

The only problem was that while the quality of the line was acceptable, it wasn’t as good as what the phone company or cable company provided. Sometimes the people I called said I sounded like I was calling from inside a tunnel or a tin can. Then there was the connectivity issue: your telephone must be connected to the deck-of-playing-cards-sized device, which must be connected to your computer (and that must be running if you want to make or receive a call).

When MagicJack PLUS was released late last year, I wondered -- could the device be significantlybetter? At about that time, I was approached by a competitor --- netTALK -- that was introducing its DUO product line with WiFi functionality.

Is a $69.95 initial investment (MagicJack PLUS device plus first year of service) worth the money or just pouring money down the drain -- and what about netTALK DUO WiFi’s $64.95 offering?

MagicJack PLUS

For the last six months I’ve been using MagicJack PLUS, and I must say, and I’m quite impressed. The sound quality is vastly superior to its “regular” (non-Plus) sibling, which is still available. When I called a friend and asked about the quality of the line, he answered without hesitation: “Sounds just like a land line.”

Rather than plugging your MagicJack PLUS device into a PC (as you did with the previous MagicJack hardware -- though you can connect it this way as well), you connect the tiny (2.5” x 1.5” x .5” LWH) unit to a power source and plug in an Ethernet cable, then plug your phone into the device. A tiny green light lets you know that service is connected.

Because my router is on all the time, this hookup means I don’t have to wait for my PC to boot up in order to place or receive a call. (You must plug the device in to your PC for initial installation and configuration.)

You use a Web site to manage your account, including buying additional years of service, porting your existing telephone number to the service (assuming your current provider allows your number to be moved), set voice mail options, and request a vanity number (for an additional yearly charge).

Promotional literature (including e-mail I’ve received from third-party sellers) boasts that international calls are free, but that really means calls to Canada or to other MagicJack users throughout the world. Customers can use their MagicJack PLUS outside the U.S. to call U.S. phone numbers for free.

With MagicJack PLUS you can set the dial tone to stutter when you have an e-mail message (a feature netTALK doesn’t offer); the system will also forward to you in an audio file to the e-mail inbox you specify. Additional years of service are $29.99, or $99.75 will buy you five more years (which comes out to a paltry $19.95 per year). Users with current MagicJack plans can carry their prepaid time over to a brand new PLUS unit for a low fee thanks to a special promotion available at press time.

NetTALK DUO WiFi

Take the best features of the MagicJack PLUS and add WiFi and you have telephone service that offers more freedom for phone placement. You must connect the device to your PC in order to set up the parameters (such as entering your WiFi’s password), but once that’s done, you won’t need your PC. (Like MagicJack’s set-up, you can connect the DUO WiFi device to your computer’s USB port if you wish.)

WiFi doesn’t completely set you free -- there’s still some tethering because the device needs power, either from a wall plug or from a USB port. However, thanks to WiFi, you can place your phone in more places than you can with the MagicJack PLUS. I tested a pre-release model, which had a codec glitch that the tech support representative was able to fix quickly. (NetTALK has a “take control of your PC” application that let the technician diagnose and solve the problem in a couple of minutes.)

Many of NetTALK’s services are identical to MagicJack PLUS’s: free phone calls to the U.S., Canada, and other netTALK users; call forwarding, voice mail, and caller ID (those you call see your phone number; MagicJack PLUS will only display your name if th person you’re calling is in your contact list). You can access your call history online, block any incoming phone number you add to your blacklist, set up speed dial, get live technical support by dialing 611 (MagicJack offers live chat that was efficient and efficiently answered all my questions). There’s a list online of the keys to press to enable/disable muting, do not disturb, or outgoing calls.

All voice mail messages over 30 days old will be deleted automatically -- a feature I don’t like. (To save a message longer you’ll have to copy the attachment from your e-mail or from the customer online portal and save it to your hard drive or other storage device.)

Additional years of service are $29.95 with discounts for multi-year renewals (a 4-year extension is just $98.95 which is just $24.74 a year), so it’s ever-so-slightly more expensive than MagicJack PLUS.

Many Differences (And a Possible Deal-Breaker for Some)

There are so many things that are alike -- and things to like: both hardware units are about the same size, have very good sound quality (an occasional slight delay is the only clue you’re not using a land line), efficient voice mail, and speedy connections. In the months I’ve been tested both units, I haven’t had a moment of down time (unless my cable service was interrupted, of course).

There are, naturally, some differences between the two products.

NetTALK offers low-cost international flat rates to 60 counties (a $10/month add-on rather than MagicJack’s per-minute charges subtracted from a prepaid balance) though for most countries you cannot use the plan to call mobile phones. For $5.85 per month you can place netTALK calls to Puerto Rican land-line and mobile devices and land lines in Mexico.

Both services provide a free conference-call service (you dial into the service to receive a phone number (not toll-free) and access code, which you share with the other people you want to talk to). However, only NetTALK offers true three-way calling (press the Flash button on your phone, connect to another number, and dial *46# to merge all parties together). With both services you can use the Flash button to switch between incoming calls (in a traditional call-waiting situation).

If you’ve unplugged the device from your Ethernet connection or power source or your Internet service is interrupted, NetTALK rings the phone once service is reestablished, a nice touch. Both products take less than 90 seconds to re-establish a connection to their respective services.

Of the two products, MagicJack’s set up is slightly easier, in part because you don’t have to hassle with WiFi connectivity (selecting the device, entering a password, etc.) but no one reading this article is likely to have a problem with installation

For business users, MagicJack PLUS has one potentially big drawback: calling to a conference service (such as GoToMeeting) requires a prepaid account from which per-minute additional charges are deducted. When I placed a call to GoToMeeting, MagicJack PLUS stopped the call and a recording told me I had to use prepaid minutes. If you use conference dial-in numbers as much as I do, this can be costly. NetTalk had no such restriction; it connected me to GoToMeeting without incident.

With so many similar features, and little perceptible difference in sound quality, making the choice comes down your individual needs and some of the “little features” you might want or need. If you want more flexibility in where you can physically position your phone, netTALK DUO WiFi is a better choice. (If your phone sits atop your desk along with your computer, then it really doesn’t matter.) If you use conference services, again, netTALK is a better option. If you want a vanity telephone number or you’re giving phone service as a gift to a less-technically savvy user, MagicJack PLUS is a better choice.

Either way, if you’re tired of cable or phone company charges atop what you thought might be a decent phone plan, both MagicJack PLUS and netTALK Duo WiFi offer smart alternatives.

-- James E. Powell
Editorial Director, ESJ

Posted on 07/05/2012 at 11:53 AM


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