magicJackAugust 22, 2008 at 9:57 am | Posted in Economoney, Hardware, Internet | 39 Comments
Back in February, I spoke of a review of magicJack, a small hardware device that allows you to use your phone over the Internet. For $20 a year, you get unlimited North America-wide calling, voicemail, a phone number in your choice of area (in the US), and a facsimile of 911 service.
Since then, several friends and the host of a conference call I listen in on have gotten magicJacks. Because they use phone infrastructure, call quality is quite a bit better.
Over the last year, I’ve been using Skype for long distance calls. Quality has been variable but usually OK and gradually getting better. Experimentation found certain things – avoid wireless and shut down piggy programs like Outlook, for example – helped. Then a month before expiry, Skype cut off the long distance service, failing to recognize a credit. Over 3 support replies, they never once addressed the question directly and explained why they were not recognizing the other ‘order’. Seemed like a good time to change providers.
I ordered the magicJack. They throw all kinds of offers at you during the order process – buy 2, buy 5, add years, etc. I added express shipping which was pointless – the email with the shipping notice had a blank tracking number. This may have been an issue with Canada but why then did they offer it? Then the postee delivered the package to the wrong place. Express took 11 days to arrive.
Setup of the magicJack is easy. The unit itself is the size of a matchbox. Plug in the phone, plug it into a USB port (it comes with an optional 6″ cord for tight spots or laptops), and the software loads.
First time, it loads a driver and service and runs a little setup routine. It updates the software on board the device too. You give your address for 911 service and pick an area code and phone number. You can’t choose your phone number, but can select the area code and exchange. It does not have to be your area. If your family is in another area, choose a number in their area and they get local service calling you.
For Canada, this brings up a few deficiencies. They do not yet have any Canadian phone infrastructure, so you have to choose an American phone number. Nearby is easy enough but you loose the local number advantage. It means there is also no 911 service. Canadians also do not get the 30 day free trial. They offer a refund instead. Thus, it’s less suitable as a phone replacement but if your main desire is cheap long distance, then it should work fine.
On my computer, when MJ setup tried to connect to the Internet, it didn’t try long enough for me to approve the application with my firewall. But it then offered a link to a page where I could manually download an update. The update updated the system software on the device. Because it loaded a service and suggested I reboot, I did so when it was done even though it didn’t bring it up again when setup was complete. After this, it worked fine.
Plugged into a PC, it loads a “soft phone” with a software address book and keypad. This tells you when you have voicemail. It also has links to commercial sites Google, Yahoo, AOL, and Weather Channel + their own ads. A bit of customization is possible, such as having the app minimize to the tray.
After setup, it reminds you to set up your voicemail – greetings, password, etc. This is similar to cell phones and such. I first tried this using the softphone and found the greeters voice and my own cutting out all the time*. A browse of the magicJack web site help suggested I change the emphasis to background tasks over apps which I’d rather not.
Using the phone attached did not have this issue, so it’s probably a computer capacity issue. My computer is robust but 5 years old. I will be making some calls with long distance friends over the next few days that will give me a chance to better see how it does.
At this point, Skype remains the better tool for conferencing and software calls. magicJack is superior for long distance calls by phone.
magicJack has another feature that’s very useful – it’s fully portable. Take it with you to Europe, plug it in and your local number is live and toll free. A friend of mine did this on a holiday we shared on the prairies. He plugged it and a headset into a friends laptop and several people made free long distance calls home.
The magicJack also works on Intel Macs, they tell us. A friend with a Macbook wants to try it, so I’ll be taking mine over. We’ll see if there’s a Mac softphone too. (The mackJack site is full of promotion but some details are missing) Just noticed the support site says something about a Mac Beta and that it requires a PC to download. Click the link and there is no download link.
So there is some rough edges as yet but a little more testing will confirm I have the solution for cheap long distance. And a clear sense of just how portable phone numbers may soon be.
*PS – the cutting out turned out to be an issue with the USB cable I was using. magicJack requires more bandwidth than most USB devices. I have been using a USB extention cable to attach devices like thumb drives without going to the back of the computer. When I switched to the short USB cable supplied with the magicJack, it worked much better. So the more direct the connection, the better. They don’t suggest using a hub unless its powered. I tried a good hub and it reduced the quality a bit.
NOTE – see comments for more tips and discussion…