Review: A cheap VoIP alternative: MagicJack

It's inexpensive, portable and works well, but has some issues with support and certain features

Last week, I started to enumerate my phone numbers, and I wound up discussing Google Inc.'s GrandCentral telephony service with considerable enthusiasm. While some people, such as reader and fellow Twitterer Allen Clarkson, are big fans, not everyone is quite as enthusiastic.

"Jim" commented on Gibbslog that "GC has a very bad feature called call presentation. If you receive a call, you MUST press 1 ... before you can take the incoming call. If you have a [headset on with a Bluetooth link to your phone], this is almost impossible while driving or if your hands are busy. This 'feature' cannot be turned off."

That is a valid point, and it would certainly be a good idea for GrandCentral to add voice recognition for selected devices.

Anyway, I wound up at the end of last week's column with a total of seven phone numbers: house, office and fax (such as it is) via Vonage, local dial-only POTS (plain old telephone service) line for DSL, GrandCentral number, and a Gizmo5 line. This week, I added a new one: a magicJack number.

MagicJack is a rather clever device that offers unlimited voice-over-IP calling in North American for $39.95 for the first year and $19.95 for subsequent years, and includes voice mail, 911 support, caller ID and free 411 service.

The magicJack hardware is a USB dongle about the size of a box of matches that weighs less than 1 oz. (Because the device is a little large, MagicJack LP also provides an extension cable for the USB socket.) The dongle provides hardware support for some VoIP protocol decoding and telephony management, and a phone jack on its side allows you to optionally connect a regular telephone handset. Windows XP and Vista are supported, and beta firmware for Mac OS X has just been released.

The first time you insert the magicJack into a USB port, it glows a pleasant blue, and all of the required drivers are downloaded from its onboard storage.

(I must digress here and complain about hardware manufacturers that use blinding blue LEDs. Yes, they are a cool color, and yes, they are easy to see. But they are so damn bright! On my desk, I have a docking station for my PDA that's just below eye level. I had to put electrical tape over the LED because it was bright enough to give me radiation burns.)

Once all of the drivers have been installed, the magicJack thinks to itself for a while and, voila! a softphone interface appears. You then go through a registration process, and you get to pick a number from what appears to be any of the majority of metropolitan areas.

The softphone interface is pretty good, recording all incoming and outgoing numbers, allowing you to select the location to associate with 911 calls, switch between using a handset and the PC's microphone and speakers, and so on.

The call quality was excellent -- several people I dialed commented on how "live" the connection sounded. I experienced a few setup issues, but given that my PCs are home to a bizarre collection of software, I might have been pushing the envelope of compatibility somewhat.

That said, if you run into problems, MagicJack's LivePerson chat-based tech support (the only choice the company offers) is not going to make you happy: They are the usual bunch of poorly skilled, outsourced, customer-disservice droids that can barely understand what you're asking and don't seem to care. Add to that MagicJack's horrible Web site, which uses the kind of marketing Ron Popeil would have been proud of, and you have an odd result: a device with incredible potential and value but backed by second-rate presentation and support.

Pros: Cheap and works amazingly well; incredibly portable; support usually not needed. Cons: PC has to be on (voice mail takes calls when you aren't available) and poor support. Bottom line: For the price, magicJack is unbeatable.

This story, "Review: A cheap VoIP alternative: MagicJack" was originally published by Network World.

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