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Tech Lab

MagicJack far from enchanting

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 12, 2009
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You've probably seen the ads on TV, especially if you're up late. Plug a little device called magicJack into a PC, then connect your telephone, and get unlimited calls throughout the United States for $20 a year.

To me, there was a whiff of sleaze about the whole thing. The aroma got stronger when I visited magicJack's gaudy website, which lacks a company name, phone number, or e-mail address, but provides an easy way to send your money.

So, of course, I had to buy a magicJack, find out just how awful it is, and warn readers. Surprise: magicJack works pretty well. I don't think it's a satisfactory replacement for standard phone service, but as a long-distance calling alternative, it could save you a nice piece of change.

You can buy a magicJack at any Best Buy store. The $40 price includes one year of unlimited phone calls. After that you'll pay $20 a year to continue the service. You can also get magicJack by mail through the company website, which touts a 30-day free trial. Another sleazy touch - the site says the free offer is only available today. Of course, when you go back the next day, it's still there.

Plug the magicJack into the USB port of an Internet-connected Windows PC or Apple Macintosh computer. There's no CD included, as magicJack software is built into the device. Once connected, it installs the code. The device features a standard telephone jack; just plug in an ordinary phone and you're ready to go. Or buy a headset with microphone and connect it to a computer's sound card. With this setup, dial magicJack's onscreen dialer with your computer mouse. You can also download a program that adds a toolbar to the address book in Microsoft Corp.'s popular Outlook information manager. Punch up an address book entry, click the toolbar, and magicJack will dial the number.

Next, go on the website to register the gadget and you're assigned a brand-new phone number. A voice mail service can also be set up to catch calls when you're not around. In addition, you can register a physical address for 911 calls, so first responders can find you in an emergency.

The process couldn't be much simpler - when it works.

On my first attempt to dial my new number from my cellphone, all went well. But on subsequent attempts, the phone wouldn't ring. Calls went directly to voice mail. Annoying as this was, magicJack's customer service was worse. The company relies almost entirely on an online chat service, where you type your complaints to some distant techie. That might be an adequate solution for minor set-up issues, but it's pretty much useless for more complex problems. The online helpers were courteous and diligent, but the endless typing nearly wore me out.

Eventually, some kindly soul dialed my cellphone. Over the course of 90 minutes, we discovered that my Internet firewall and magicJack didn't get along. After a bit of reconfiguration, everything began to work as advertised. Calls came through, and sound quality was as clear as a standard landline.

Still, I'd never use magicJack as my primary phone. I'm not prejudiced against Internet-based phone systems. I already use one, through my cable and Internet provider, Comcast Corp. But the Comcast system is more robust.

For instance, the cable modem that delivers the phone service has a battery that keeps the phone line alive for several hours if there's a power failure. Besides, the cable modem is independent of my computer. If my PC is switched off, I can still order pizza or call the police.

Not so with magicJack. It's useless without a steady stream of electricity, a running computer, and a live Internet connection. Shut off the computer overnight, and you've shut off your phone service.

MagicJack's 911 service doesn't inspire confidence, either. You have to enter your address into the magicJack software so the system knows where to send the fire department or the police. Because you can use magicJack on any PC or Mac, you can type in a different address when you change locations. Anyway, that's the theory.

MagicJack founder Daniel Borislow told me it takes a day or two for his device to correctly identify a user's location. That's some small comfort. But I'd feel safer relying on a standard landline for emergency calls, or even my Verizon cellphone with its built-in GPS locator.

Still, magicJack basically works, and it can save you money. Local phone company Verizon charges at least $45 a month for unlimited local and long distance service, although can get a basic Verizon local line for about $20 a month. By using magicJack for your long distance calls, you'd save $280 a year, and still have Verizon as an emergency fallback.

Borislow says his privately held firm has sold 2.6 million magicJacks, and I believe him. If he upgrades customer service, and abandons crude marketing gimmicks, he'll probably sell millions more.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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