Living with Ooma: A report card

Would you gladly pay $250 today for free telephone service forever? That's the premise with Ooma, a voice over IP telephone service offered as a replacement for your traditional land line telephone service.

I've been testing the Ooma VoIP adapter and service, and after nearly a month using Ooma as my primary telephone service, I've found that it delivers on what the vendor promised. Voice quality and reliability have been good, product quality and ergonomics are excellent, and the tool-free support line staffed by Americans -- a rarity these days -- has been good.

Computerworld's Preston Gralla already did a hands-on review of Ooma, so I won't go into as much detail on features here. But I can tell you what it's like to set up and use the service on an ongoing basis, provide a few tips that should help you decide how you might set it up, and whether the service is right for you.

Here's my report card.

Out of the Box Experience: A

Ooma's sleek black packaging sets the user up for what should be a pleasant out of the box experience. The design of the Ooma hub and Ooma Scout remote unit is pleasing to the eye, and both units have a solid, quality feel to them. My wife, who is not a techie, found it easy to use and easy enough on the eyes (it's white instead of the black that's popular with tech devices theses days) that she would allow it in the kitchen.

Ooma Hub

The Ooma Hub is a VoIP adapter and Linux-based application server.

The control buttons on the hub and Scout units, which access Ooma's Web-based voice mail, are big and very easy to operate. I like the fact that the "play" button lights up when messages are waiting. (You can also retrieve your messages online.) I have just one little nit to pick here: The unit has buttons for line 1 and line 2. If the inactive line is selected, pressing the play button gives an error message. It took me a minute to figure out what was going on.

Setup is similarly easy, as described in Preston's review. The visual installation guide steps you through several different scenarios. Pick the one that fits your setup, and you're in business in about ten minutes.

Cost: A

You'll pay $249.99 for the basic unit plus $39.99 to transfer your own phone number (but shop around; you can get it cheaper). After that, all calls in the U.S. are free with no monthly charge. International calls are extra (per minute charges vary), as are directory assistance calls, which will set you back 99 cents each. To use those services, however, you'll need to set up a prepaid account.

So what's the payback? If your land line and long distance services come to $40 per month, you'll recover that cost in about seven months. Ooma says the average payback is about 7-8 months. The unit includes a one-year warranty against defects, but that doesn't cover damage, so make sure you put your Ooma Hub on a surge protector to preserve that up-front investment.

Ooma includes a few basic features such as caller ID, call waiting, and voice mail. If you want additional features or a second line, you'll need to sign up for Ooma Premier at $12.99 per month. The more interesting features here include three-way conferencing, message screening, multi-ring capability (to, for example, have incoming calls simultaneously ring on your home, cell and office line at the same time), and an instant second line feature that allows one phone attached to a Scout to make or receive a second call when another phone is already using the line.

Signing up for Ooma Premier allows you to add a second telephone number for free or to waive that $39.99 charge for transferring one phone number. But to take advantage of the free number porting option, you have to pay for one year of premier service in advance. That $99 up-sell is just one of the clever ways in which Ooma squeezes additional profits from its customers.

Ooma provides a 60-day trial of Ooma Premier when you buy the system. Be forewarned: You may get used to the extra services and start talking yourself into that extra $12.99 per month. That may be one reason why Ooma says one in four users have signed on for its premium service. But doing so will, of course, affect the payback you get on your up-front investment.

Which brings us to the last point here: Calculating your payback using Ooma isn't always straightforward. Unexpected things can come up that can affect how much you'll invest up front -- and how much you'll really save. One example: if you cancel your land line, will the telephone company raise your rate for DSL?

Using Ooma with Other Phones: B

Using Ooma with other phones in the house is easy. Ooma can use your existing household telephone wiring to provide a dial tone to any phone in your house -- even if you're still using that wiring for DSL or land line telephone service. To do that, you need to set up another box, called a Scout, at every extension. Each Scout requires a telephone jack and AC power. Ooma includes one Scout in the basic package; additional units are $69.99 each.

Ooma Scout

The Ooma Scout device.

If you're not using DSL for Internet access or land line telephone service -- and you disconnect your internal telephone wiring system from the street -- the Ooma hub can also directly power up to ten phone extensions in your house without the need for a Scout. Ooma doesn't go into detail about how to do that, probably because it can be complicated -- but if you do that, you don't need to buy additional remote Scout devices.

Setting up a remote extension with the Scout is similarly easy -- it sits between your telephone and the wall jack -- and the fact that it includes answering machine controls is a plus. The Scout uses special signaling over your existing telephone wiring to provide Ooma telephone service to any phone jack in your house. (Just don't forget that you need to connect a patch cord from the "wall" output jack on the Ooma hub, not the "phone" jack. I made this mistake.)

Ooma Hub Backside

Rear shot of the Ooma Hub. Note the "Wall" and "Phone" jacks. "Wall" provides signalling for the remote Ooma Scout. Connecting the "Phone" port to your wall jack can provide dial tone to every phone in your house.

One nice thing about the Scout is that it lets you power phone extensions even when the phone wiring is being used for land line service or DSL. So one phone jack in the house may have a Scout while others in the house may be on, say, Verizon service. The Ooma dial tone starts with a musical note so that you know you're using its service and not the land line. But if power goes out, the Ooma hub flips a relay that switches the dial tone over to your land line service (if you've set up the Ooma hub to do that by connecting it to your household wiring). That's very clever.

Of course, to use that feature during a power outage you'll still need a hand set that doesn't require AC power, which may be hard to find nowadays.

If you don't want to cancel your land line, you can choose to use Ooma's service for all of your toll calls, or to save some money you can put your land line service in low-cost measured service mode and use it as emergency fallback during power outages (Measured service is about $6 a month in my area. Downside: If you have to use the land line the phone company charges 16 cents per minute for any call, local or long distance).

Only about 1 in 5 consumers keep their analog phone service, usually to support a fax line or alarm system, according to Ooma.

If you're not using DSL or your land line, you can use Ooma to power other extensions in the house through your household telephone wiring without using a Scout. You do this by connecting the "phone" port on the Ooma hub to any wall jack. However, you'll need to make sure that your telephone wiring is physically disconnected from the telephone company feed to your house.

This option is a good solution if you have wall-mounted phones where it's difficult to put in a Scout. Plus you don't need to buy extra Ooma Scouts for each extension (unless you want the answering machine function in that room).

If you want to do that, you'll have to open up the termination box on the outside of your home to check the wiring. Ooma doesn't provide any instructions on how to do this, but you can find do-it-yourself home wiring directions on competitor Vonage's Web site.

If a scenario like this scares you or you don't know your way around a multi-tester, you might want to hire an electrician to do the job -- or just buy a cordless phone with several remotes and forget about it. (In my case the feed from this box lead to a simple connection point in the basement that allowed for easy disconnection of the street feed from the rest of my home wiring).

Telco Box on Home

The telephone company termination box on my house. A bit scary, isnt' it? The black wire at left is the telco feed. The rest of the mess at right are telephone wires going into the house.

One final note here: The Ooma hub can power both Scouts and other extensions in your house. But because each uses different signaling Ooma will need to provide two feeds into your telephone wall jack. To do this you run two telephone patch cords: one from the "wall" output jack and one from the "phone" output jack on the hub [Photo]. A provided splitter goes into your wall jack and provides two RJ11 sockets. Connect both wires to that and you're done.

Performance: B

I replaced my phone service with Ooma over the past month. During that time I experienced three dropped calls. However, those issues may have had to do with how I initially connected Ooma (It's supposed to go be directly connected to your cable or DSL modem, not a secondary router, as I did). Since I changed that around the service has operated just fine.

In his review, Preston Gralla describes "tinny" call quality. Although the Ooma dial tone did sound a bit lower in volume and perhaps tinnier than my land line or Vonage phone, voice quality during actual calls was generally as good or better than with my land line.

Support: B

Ooma has a knowledge base, FAQ, online manuals, forums, and direct support via e-mail support (24-hour turnaround) and a toll free support hot line. Personally I don't have much patience with the forums.

Telephone support is restricted to Pacific Time business hours (8-6 pm; 8-5 pm on weekends). It took about 30 seconds to cycle through the automated attendant options and one minute before I was speaking with a live support person. I was on the phone with a technician within one minute on my first try. Jose, based in the company's Palo Alto headquarters, correctly diagnosed the problem I described and offered to walk me through resolving it.

Jose provided another useful tip: Use Visualware's MCS MyVoIP to test your Internet service for problems that might affect the quality of your VoIP service. The online test can identify jitter, packet loss and other issues that could affect call quality. Try running the service before buying a product like Ooma to help ensure that it's going to work for you.

I did test Ooma's e-mail support as well and received a helpful response to my inquiry within the promised 24 hour timeframe.

Final decision

As I begin packing up the Ooma equipment, I find myself seriously contemplating ordering Ooma. As I write this, Amazon.com has the best price for Ooma I could find, at $212.99. Earlier this year, it was selling the package for $199.99.

Ooma's not perfect. If the power goes out you lose your phone service, as you do with any VoIP telephone service. And if the unit gets fried in a thunder storm or you break it you're out of luck until you can get a new one. These days, though, most folks have a cell phone, and by going to the Ooma Web site you can configure the service to forward inbound calls to a cell phone or any other number.

With VoIP, you have far more flexibility in voice services than you ever had with plain old telephone service. For example, you can take your telephone with you by simply moving your adapter.

Ooma does come with some risks. It is a fairly small company -- somewhere around 40 employees, with projected sales of perhaps 20 million units this year. But it has distribution with major retailers such as Amazon and Best Buy, and is picking up new retailers, most recently Radio Shack. With the recession in full swing and consumers looking for any way to cut monthly bills, Ooma appears to be on a roll.

If you like the Ooma business model of paying up front now for free service later -- and you're willing to bet 250 bucks that Ooma will be around long enough for you to recoup your initial investment -- Ooma can be one sweet deal.

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