"Well, of course, not!" You’re probably like us. Anything with Magic in the name and Free in the advertising usually makes us start scurrying toward the nearest fire exit. Well, not so fast, Tonto. magicJack is a brilliant idea: a $20 USB dongle that plugs into any Windows XP PC. Then for $20 a year, you plug in any garden-variety telephone, and you get unlimited, free calls to any phone in the U.S. and Canada. That’s not quite free, but it’s close enough in our book. Released in April at the TED conference, the device design has just about everything right. And it’s all done with VoIP technology. You get a real telephone number in your favorite area code. You use a real telephone to make calls. And incoming calls can ring on both your regular phone (plugged into the magicJack) AND your cellphone… soon.
The only prerequisite is that you have to have at least your main phone connected through the magicJack to a working Windows XP machine. Vista support is now available but we didn’t test it. With cordless phone systems supporting a dozen extensions, the Windows machine requirement with an attached phone is not much of a drawback for most folks. Let’s just tick off who qualifies as the perfect audience for a device like this. Grandma and grandpa, traveling sales people, teenage girls, schools, nursing homes, summer camps, bars, resort hotels, restaurants, college dorms, rental apartments, those with a second (or third) home, people that travel or live outside the U.S. and Canada that need to make calls back to North America at no cost. Remember, this works anywhere with an XP machine, a phone, and a broadband Internet connection. You can even dispense with the phone and use the included softphone if you desire. And the PC doesn’t have to be a Dell behemoth. It could be a tiny PC about the size of a stack of four CDs. The magicJack itself functions much like a Sipura SPA-1001 analog VoIP adapter with similar call quality except for the attached PC requirement. So now you’ve got the theory down. Let’s unbox the device and put it through some basic tests.
Installation and Setup. The hardest part of installation is getting the magicJack out of its packaging. If you love all those shrink-wrapped toys that cut your hands open when you try to pry them loose from the package, then you’ll really love the magicJack. It’s got two layers of the stuff. But, once you finally free the magicJack from its packaging, you’ll be up and running in under 2 minutes. Plug the cord of a regular telephone into the magicJack. Then plug the magicJack into a USB port on your (functioning) XP machine. It’ll automatically install itself in under a minute. Now reboot your machine. Once your PC comes back to life, unplug the magicJack and then plug it back in again (Bug #1). When prompted, you’ll need to authorize the magicJack to access the Internet through your firewall obviously. Then you’ll be prompted to enter your email address and set up a password. Once completed, you’re good to go. Well, sorta… The PC software, which is always running, is a combination of a softphone, a user interface to the magicJack, and a billboard where magicJack someday plans to host advertising. Now you can appreciate the main reason for the PC requirement. A terminal adapter doesn’t have a screen to display advertising. Of course, you can minimize this one so it’s not much of a distraction unless that functionality should change in coming months.
One Minute of Patience For A Lifetime of Savings. Great motto, but… it’s going to take more than a minute of patience once you get the software installed. We work with all sorts of phones and PBXs for a living so let us sum up the current state of affairs with magicJack: B-U-G-G-Y. The theory and design of the product are right on the money, but the software is just not yet reliable or even stable. We experienced frequent software crashes and glitches both at their end and at ours. Crashes on the Windows desktop require you to remove and reinsert the device. There’s really no other way to restart the device since it runs all the time when your PC is on. One call always seemed to work great in either direction. And the call quality was excellent with no echo. But then it was downhill from there. A surefire way to kill incoming calls was to dial your new number from the phone connected to the magicJack. You’re instructed to do this to reset your voicemail password. But once we did it, no incoming calls arrived until the PC was rebooted. All the calls went directly to voicemail. And that was hit and miss as well. You’d get a typical unavailable message, but then the system would abruptly hang up. And a dozen attempts to call the voicemail system from the device to reset the password all failed with three beeps and then nothing. It took us a while to figure out that this is what was killing inbound calls. This is a little puzzling since it appears they’re using a standard Asterisk® server at least for voicemail. Here was the From address on the email delivery of the voicemail message: Magicjack <voicemail@asterisk>. Another quick way to kill the system was to leave the PC idle for an hour, even without a screensaver. After that, nothing worked. No dialtone. No incoming calls. No softphone functionality.
The interaction between the PC softphone display and the POTS phone also was quirky. Sometimes the softphone would lose track of whether a call had been answered, and this typically killed the ability to receive any further calls. So you’ll want to stay close to your PC because walking around with a cordless phone would give you no clue whether a call had been properly disconnected. And, whatever you do, don’t try the Advanced User option to restart the software. That crashed and trashed just about everything necessitating (yet another) system reboot. If you loved Windows 3.1, then you’ll feel right at home wrestling with this software.
Bottom Line. We actually got the device from a friend with about as many cellphone stores as AT&T. My advice to him went something like this. Let’s give the developers another three months to get the kinks out. Then we’ll test it again before Christmas and see if things have improved. Our bottom line with telephone service is quite simple. When someone calls, the phone had better ring. And, when no one answers, the voicemail had better work. For pioneers, this is a terrific product for experimentation, but we wouldn’t choose it yet if reliable phone service matters. So our current comparison of the magicJack to our Asterisk system would be a no-brainer. We reboot our Asterisk system about once every six months. We rebooted the magicJack about a dozen times in the first hour, and all we were doing was placing less than a handful of test calls. You can click on the screenshot above to visit their web site. Stay tuned!
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