August 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…


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  1. The Mac test flopped as they have a powerPC driven Mac. MJ needs an Intel Mac, the ones made in the last couple of years that will also run Windows.
    However, when I plugged the MJ in, it did show a start screen so does apparently include a softphone.


  2. So far, calling another MJ has given the best sound quality. Comments made by others on the tech forums indicate its not up for replacing your home phone but is certainly moving in that direction.

    Don’t forget that if you have hardware problems, a reboot may help clear it up.


  3. A friend had a problem getting it up and running – turned out to be an issue with the ‘autorun’ feature that uses a virtual CD player. MJ also creates a virtual drive, using 2 drive letters. Make sure your settings and firewall allow this.

    My silly firewall asks every time about the autorun.





  5. The above is a commercial message I don’t know anything about. They charge 5x what MJ charges for the honor of a Canadian number, which is then forwarded to your US one. That would give you a local number but defeats the low cost of a MJ. It also introduces another exchange system into the mix so may reduce call quality.

    The use another softphone (software telephone) called X-Lite to do the work. So it’s a company laid on top of MJ infrastructure, using someone else’s softphone – neither of which they have any control over.
    hmmm – you’d probably then have both the MJ and X-Lite softphones running…

    Still – it’s interesting to consider you could use an alternative softphone with MagicJack.

    They are also now advertising numbers in International locations to do the same thing.


  6. As a further note, my cell phone has been giving me reception problems at home, so I’ve been using the MJ for outgoing calls a lot – locally too. It’s nice to use a headset for handsfree when reviewing details on the phone. A couple of people have found it odd that I seemed to be calling from WA state (where my MJ # is) and the call quality is not perfect but it’s been fine, even for business calls.


  7. I should note that I don’t have a land line. Gave that up when I had the SkypeOut & cell combo.


  8. There is no change in sound quality…if fact its better sound quality then the magic jack that uses H323 instead of SIP that the uses.

    The price is just $8.00 or so per month for a Canadian number working on your Magicjack and Magic Jack can not provide you with that service as of today …so think about that.

    Neil Adams

    The owner of Canadianmagicjack.


  9. Thanks for the feedback, Neil.
    Yes, it is much cheaper than something like Vonage for both MJ and your service. But as your service forwards to the MJ, it is a bit of a kludge.

    For one, it appears you need 2 softphones – both MJ and X-Lite – running. These are not small footprint programs.

    H323 is indeed superior.
    (compare H323 and SIP:
    But if you are using one protocol, then forwarding the call to MJ using SIP, then I don’t see why this would improve call quality. Indeed, translation of protocols from system to system can introduce noise. If I am incorrect, I welcome clarification.

    The key here is how you plan to use the device. If it’s just to save on long distance and you want to give relatives a way to call you locally from Austria or Canada (save them $), this may be a solution. Or would buying them an MJ be cheaper? But for a small business, do you want to have access depend on a kludge? Forums on MJ have people who assumed too much and advertised their MJ number as a business number, only to find it not as reliable.

    Any time you have an open system – open Internet, variable computer technology at both ends, variable computer environments at both ends, inexperienced system operators, and variable intermediate technology, you are NOT going to see the reliability of a much more closed phone network. Businesses using VoIP usually use a dedicated internet connection for example. And have to debug it. Don’t expect miracles for $20.

    This conversation does reveal a weakness of MJ – it is using older technology that will not scale up to video calls, etc. It is phone only. But what do you expect for the price 😉


  10. I use the MJ all the time for all my calls when I’m at home now. It’s been better than my cell phone.


  11. Just got a comment from a Toronto based ISP who was selling MagicJacks for $60. No Canadian number, just reselling them at a 50% markup. And offering this ‘deal’ to other resellers.

    Actually, the markup would be even more as you can buy MJ’s for less in bulk.


  12. I have an issue with the additional drives that mj adds. My MP3 player has a microSD expansion card and it is not seen by Windows Explorer. I had to use a microSD to USB adapter and Explorer to move things around and I’m set. Had to RMA my first one and found even their supervisor inept. They promised a cross-ship, didn’t provide it, charged my card during the trial period, etc.

    Isn’t their website a joke with all the scrolling down needed to use FAQs etc.

    All in all a decent deal though.


  13. I’ve not had the drive issue but have seen it with other devices. 2 devices assign themselves to the same drive letters. One in effect hides the other. Network drives can also be overlaid this way. The fix is giving them a higher drive letter or possibly inserting them in a certain sequence after boot.

    I would suggest this sounds like a Windows driver issue, one that has failed to keep up with newer hardware.

    I assign higher letters for my optical drives routinely so that USB drives don’t bump their drive letters around. Citrix traditionally likes to use drive M+ so it can get to be busy territory.


  14. It’s a piece of Windows-centric, anti-Macintosh crap. Go with Skype, which doesn’t discriminate.


  15. I disagree. The MagicJack works on Intel Macs. Skype is interesting. The Mac version is quite different than the PC version – mostly the same features but the interface is quite different and how you conference, etc.

    However, in other ways, I’d agree. Skype quality is gradually getting better and better while the MagicJack quality has been getting worse. Usually people assume I’m calling from a cell. They didn’t when I got it.

    For myself, I use both. Skype to other Skypers, MagicJack to other phones. The second is cheaper for that. But we’ll see how it goes. If current trends continue, I may find the MagicJack best just for travelling.

    On the other hand, I plan to get a Linux Netbook shortly – boots in 12 seconds. Like a mini-laptop. Built in webcam and mic. Will boot Windows if I want to. It will run Skype but NOT MagicJack in Linux. That may lead me back to SkypeOut. We’ll see.


  16. Just got my MJ
    running flawlessly, hint:
    be sure to have enough ram overhead this will
    take care of the “choppy” signal caused by memory allocation issues.

    as always be sure to perform regular maint on your computer and don’t overload it with programs and other stuff you don’t need.

    do this and your MJ will perform beyond expectation.


    • Hi Jim
      Yep – lots of RAM and a fast USB connection.
      Recently, I’ve had issues with them hearing static. I don’t hear it with them but they hear it with me. Will have to experiment and see if my Mic is the issue. Don’t think so but possible.


  17. Had the MJ for a week now.
    Bought a cheap cordless phone from W-Mart which works well. So far the sound quality is great! I am on DSL and have a wireless system in the house. I plugged the MJ into a laptop which has a wireless link to the internet. The MJ performed very well there also. I have asked that all in the house use the MJ phone as often as they can and let me know of any problems. So far all is OK.
    According to MJ they will be able to “port” in numbers sometime in 2009, by then I will know if I want to do that.

    Just one issue so far.
    I understand that the address book file can be copied and stored on the computer and then copied into the directory after you re-boot or change computers. I have not been able to do this yet.

    Things I do like..
    Voice mail and the fact that a wave file with the calling number and time stamp is sent to your e-mail.
    911 setup worked very well, it is automatic and depending where you are dictates the time it takes. Took my MJ about 30 minutes and I had 911.
    Call quality is “great” so far (guess I said that twice huh?)
    In a year or so we intend to travel and if this thing works as I hope it does, we will have our Phone number where ever we might land as long as there is a high speed connection.


  18. Hi
    Thanks for the feedback.
    Wireless can be fine but is much more prone to interference.

    When you plug the MJ in, it creates 2 drives in Windows Explorer – one like a CD drive, the 2nd (the drive letter will vary) like another hard drive. In the second is a folder called magicJack. In that folder is a file called “AddressBook.xml” (xml is sort of like a web page)

    That file has your Address book records in it. You should be able to just copy it.

    BUT – as the MJ carries this on board, it should just show up on whatever computer you use it on. The only reason you’d want to do it is if you want to copy the address book to another magicJack.

    Perhaps I misunderstand what your issue is. But that would be a way to back it up too.

    Traveling is the most cool part of it. Someone calls you on your local number and it rings in, say France.


  19. Just got comments on this and the original article suggesting one buy MagicJacks from a reseller. They buy them from MJ in bulk and resell them to you for less. Better customer service. He says he saved $10.

    He makes a valid point but included links to a blog designed to generate hit traffic, not actual sell them. evidently sells them now (reg price) as well as folks on eBay for as much as $10 off.


  20. Just a mention again to make the idea clear – if you are in Canada and want to use the MJ to call family that are also in Canada, if you both have magicJacks, you don’t have to worry about the local calling number issue. You can call both ways for free.


  21. A friend of mines MJ just lost all of it’s Contacts.

    When you put the MJ in, it creates 2 “drives” in Windows Explorer. The second has a folder called “magicJack” that contains an Addressbook.xml file. Also a config file and call logs. If you don’t see it, you need to set Tools, Options to Show hidden Files.

    I’d copy that directory out as a backup to avoid this in future. MJ FAQs suggest backing up the Addressbook file. They don’t mention loosing it. But as its stored magnetically, it can be corrupted or lost by several influences.


  22. In the last couple of weeks, several friends have noted a major deterioration in call quality. I’ve usually found the other side clear, although they’ve sometimes found noise from my side. In the last few calls, I’ve not been able to hear them properly, the call has been dropped twice without warning, there has been a lot of line noise or some other issue on EVERY call.

    Skype meanwhile has continued to improve. If this continues, I’ll no longer be able to recommend a MagicJack.


  23. A friend of mine just got a fix from MJ support – opening 2 UDP ports in Windows firewall. I assume the MJ uses other ports if these are not open and this reduces call quality?? (usually if a port is closed, it simply doesn’t work) We’ll see if this is an improvement. I use the Comodo firewall and it’s already approved.


  24. Just looked in the Windows Firewall Exceptions and MagicJack is listed there even though Windows Firewall is off because I use another product and it’s been off since long before I got the MagicJack. This implies that something is using this list or the firewall is still active in some way. I made the suggested changes to see if that makes a difference.


  25. OK – another friend of mine and I both did the fix and it’s much improved on first test. So evidently, Windows firewall settings do impact things, even if the firewall is turned off.

    Here is MJ’s suggested fix:
    Control Panel, Windows Firewall, Exceptions tab.
    Click Add Port, name MagicJack, port number 5060, UDP, click OK.
    Click Add port, name MagicJack, port number 5070, UDP, click OK.
    No need to reboot.

    Fix works on XP, Vista and Intel Macs. (Mac instructions would be different)


  26. Further feedback from others – the above fix helps but does not solve choppy connection issues.


  27. Another fix I ran into

    It’s for fixing MJ bluescreens, but does mention updating the “Enhanced USB Host Controller” entry. (what it’s called exactly will vary by hardware) This is not a bad idea in any case – updating drivers can help solve all sorts of issues. In my case, I just updated the Intel driver and it did update. The article suggests updating to a generic driver which I’d not do unless you are having the specific issue. Generic drivers may work but can lower additional functionality.


  28. Just got a few test calls from a friend of mine. He’s been on MJ Support chat for almost 3 hours.

    Ctrl-Alt-Del brings up the Task Manager. (or right click the Task Bar and choose Task Manager)

    Select Processes tab, find and right click on MagicJack, Set Priority to High.

    (be very careful of any tech support person telling you to change the priority of OTHER programs.)

    His test calls with me no longer were choppy but they were with someone else.


  29. A General Update:
    At this point, I still use the MagicJack for local and long distance calls. As I don’t have a land line, it reduces use of daytime minutes on the cell.

    People still assume I’m calling from a cell as they hear line noise. I don’t usually here it on their side.
    Occasionally, someone is confused by an out-of-area phone number calling. And occasionally, I get wrong number calls. They’re not expecting to connect with another country. (laughs)

    MagicJack still requires firewall approval every time I plug it in as it uses autorun rather than a program I can formally approve.

    Call quality went down, then leveled out for MagicJacks. I’ve seen a reasonably continual improvement from Skype however.

    At this point, I am considering going back to SkypeOut with MagicJack as a backup for traveling. I have not found any advantage in distributing my MJ number as it’s not local.

    While I had one minor negative customer service experience with Skype, the same was pointless with MJ. People I know who have had problems spent hours over it. I’ve not heard of any successful refunds. If they happened, they would have been long delayed.

    But for $20 a year to save on long distance, MJ is still an option. For traveling also.


    • So… did you ever figure out a remedy for choppy calls?


  30. Hi Patsy
    Choppy calls can be from a variety of things. Telephone networks are closed and controlled, IP networks are not. Could be:
    – Internet connection traffic – more common if you use cable (cable uses shared hubs)
    – other piggy programs using system resources like Outlook
    – using slow speed USB jacks. (some computers have 1.1 and 2)
    – using a USB extension cord.
    – using a USB hub
    – hidden unresolved hardware conflicts (yellow items in device manager)
    – hang up and try another connection
    – it also seems to vary by how much of your call is on the Internet and how much on the phone system and how they interface.

    I even found that using a phone in the MJ gave better call quality that using the softphone. I prefer the second as I use a headset mic.

    And finally, Skype. Skype has fewer area of issue and has been continually improving in my experience.


  31. Just a comment on Expiry and renewal.
    magicJack has sent no email reminder of expiry or date. I had to log in to my account to see it. All I get is the ad that says “Your Service will Expire Soon” on the softphone.

    If you’re using a hardware phone and ignoring the ads, you may not see this. If you click on the “Renew” ad, you get the web site page inviting you pay $40 for a Magicjack. No renewal page. Plus it opens in IE, not the default browser.

    Would have thought they’d be more polished by now.
    I went back to Skype but may reactivate it later for traveling.
    (not that Skypes web site is so fantastic, especially after they dropped the service names. Now its just Pay as You Go or Subscribe)


  32. MJ’s are now available in local retail shops at a small surcharge. Certainly easier than the MJ order system.

    I continue to get some very positive reports. It seems it depends a little on where you are as to how good the call quality is. For some, it’s great.

    I’ll be traveling shortly so am considering reactivating the MJ.

    They now offer Canadian phone numbers, evidently for a $10 surcharge


  33. Hmmm – according to online reports, if you renew after expiry, you will now still pay for the period of time you DIDN’T use the MJ. If service has lapsed for over a year, you have to pay for the year of no service to get renewed. In this case, it would be cheaper to buy a new one.


  34. i need to reset my email and password


  35. Go to the MJ web site and log into your account and you’ll find ways to update both. Have not been in their site since my MJ expired in ’09. I use Skype now as I have a portable computer and enjoy it’s options better. (not so happy with the Facebook push though)

    If you’ve forgotten your password, there will be some way to email yourself the password. If you’ve abandoned your old email account too, you’ll probably have to contact their tech support. You might find it easier to buy a new one.

    I noticed recently that retailers now carry a new more expensive kind of MJ that has an accessory to plug it into a wall socket. This skips the need to plug it into a computer for power. Instead you plug in a network cable and the phone. The softphone option is not available this way so a phone is required.

    This would allow you to put the phone away from where the computer is, but it still needs the network connection. Wireless would require buying an external wireless port. Travelling, it means you can go without the computer but will need the power block, network cable and a phone.

    The alternative is of course a netbook or tablet with Skype. I recently got a gift tablet for $150. Not only will it do Skype calls but email, web, maps, news, and thousands of other possibilities….




      • ON THEIR WEB SITE. That updates your MJ.
        See above.


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