By Walt Mossberg When I see a high-tech product (DCZ: with good PR people who get it to you first) that's advertised mainly via frequent hard-sell TV ads as if it were a diet pill, I tend to assume it can't be very good (DCZ: your late to the game if 4M people have purchased?), especially if its price is absurdly low. So, I haven't paid much attention to a product called magicJack, a small $40 adapter for your computer that claims to let you make unlimited domestic phone calls over the Internet with your home telephone free for a whole year—and for just $20 a year thereafter. (DCZ: because it wasn't originally sold through mainstream retail and is was hated by the big carriers?)
But after receiving reader requests to review magicJack (DCZ: Why?), I decided to do so. To my surprise, it worked pretty much as advertised. It has a few drawbacks, and extra fees for added services, such as vanity phone numbers. But I found magicJack easy to set up and easy to use, and it yielded decent, if not pristine, call quality. I even tested customer support—a source of complaints online—and found it friendly, fast, and responsive.
Magic Jack is a new device and service that allows you to make cheap phone calls through your computer. Overall, the product works as advertised, Walt Mossberg found. MagicJack looks like an oversized USB flash drive. On one end is a standard USB connector for the PC; on the other is a standard phone jack to plug in a phone. It's compatible with PCs running Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7, as well as with all Intel-based Macs. It works with both corded and cordless phones, and comes with software for dialing, though you can also dial directly from a connected phone.
The low annual fee covers calls to and from any phone on any telephone network—landline or cellphone—not just phones connected to computers or to other magicJack. The only restriction is that the numbers called must be in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands. You can also buy low-cost prepaid international minutes, or take your magicJack abroad to make free calls home. You can move it among different computers and locations.
MagicJack can also be used without a phone handset, via a computer headset or the computer's built-in microphone and speakers. There's nothing new about Internet (DCZ: VoIP) phone calling. Companies like Vonage and Skype have been doing it for years. But magicJack is different. It emphasizes calling to and from phones on regular wired and wireless phone networks, and its prices for calls to and from such non-Internet-connected phones are much lower. (DCZ: MagicJack is 2X larger than Vonage with 2M customers and would be curious to see what the service quality performance record is compared to Skype)
For instance, the lowest plan advertised on Vonage's Web site for calling regular phones in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico is $17.99 a month, or about $216 a year, versus magicJack's $20. And Vonage gives you only 500 minutes a month, while magicJack sets no limit. Skype charges per-minute or monthly fees for calls to regular phones and an added fee to receive incoming calls. (DCZ: What about Google Voice?)
The maker of magicJack says its low prices are possible because the product is produced by a privately held Florida company called YMAX, which is also a phone carrier (DCZ: also known as a CLEC). The company also runs ads inside its software. You can buy the device at a wide variety of stores, even drugstores and convenience stores. (DCZ: Do you think they might actually make more money off of location-based advertising eventually?)
I tested magicJack on both a PC and a Mac. The software resides inside the magicJack itself and installs each time you connect it. In my tests, I made and received calls on both computers, using a single landline phone and using a cordless-phone system in my house after plugging its base station into the magicJack. In the latter case, I could make and receive calls from cordless phones all over my house. I exchanged calls with both landline phones and cellphones from the magicJack. The call quality was good, except for a few times when the connection got scratchy for a second or two. Most of the people I called said they couldn't tell I wasn't on a regular call. The system offers voice mail, call forwarding, and conference calls, and you can save contacts. A couple of times I didn't get an immediate dial tone and had to hang up and try again.
The biggest downside of the magicJack compared with regular phone service is that you have to be running an Internet-connected computer, with a magicJack installed anytime you want to make or receive calls. (DCZ: It also works with WiFi?) Also, as with all Internet phone systems, you have to register your address with 911 emergency systems. With magicJack, you get a new phone number. The company says it is working on allowing you to port your existing landline number. You can keep your landline number for use on some phones or when you're not using magicJack.
I found magicJack worked better on Windows than on the Mac. (DCZ: Not a shocker) At one point, magicJack customer support had to send me a software to patch the Mac version. But the company claims it is fixing that with a new Mac version coming soon.
YMAX also says it plans to roll out this year a Skype-like service that won't require any magicJack hardware, just a PC or an iPhone. It also plans a new version of magicJack to turn cellphones into wireless magicJack handsets. (DCZ: This is going to be called the Femto Jack)
I don't know if those diet pills in the TV ads work. (DCZ: Direct response marketing works) But magicJack does.