New MagicJack Plus offers quality inexpensive phone service

If you watch any TV, you have undoubtedly seen the countless commercials for MagicJack, offering to save users hundreds of dollars a year in phone bills for a monthly fee of about $2. When it first came out about three years ago, I reviewed the original MagicJack in this column and on my weekly radio show. At that time, MagicJack offered some of the least expensive unlimited local and long distance phone service in the country by utilizing the small $39.95 USB connected original MagicJack device, a broadband Internet connected computer, and an attached telephone.

MagicJack is very useful in that it offers unlimited local and long distance calling throughout the U.S. and Canada, deeply discounted international calling via prepaid minutes, free directory assistance, call waiting, voice mail, caller ID, and free international calling when calling the U.S. MagicJack also offers its users free conference calling; as long as the user creating the conference call is a registered MagicJack user, anyone else may participate in the conference call. Creating a “conference call room” is very simple, and instructions are online at www.freemagicconference.com.

According to its Web site, more than 8 million of the original MagicJack units have been sold. MagicJack uses VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) technology to send and receive phone calls, a technology utilized by several other Internet or “digital” phone services. I used the original USB connected MagicJack for about two years, primarily for making long distance calls from home rather than using primetime cell phone minutes. I also took my MagicJack and an old telephone with me when traveling such that I would have local and long distance service from hotel rooms, and thus avoid expensive hotel telephone charges, or using limited cell phone minutes. I took my MagicJack and phone with me when evacuating from a series of coastal hurricanes, providing me with phone service while away from home. The final use of my original MagicJack was in my office so that I could make or return long distance phone calls without incurring long distance charges for my college.

Except for one glitch during a periodic automatic upgrade of the original MagicJack software, which led to the loss of my phonebook, it always served me well as long as I had a broadband Internet connection and my computer was turned on. The requirement that the original MagicJack must be connected via USB to a powered and booted computer was its Achilles’ heel. While the voice quality was good and features comprehensive, and I always shut down my computer when I was not using it. With the computer off, the original MagicJack was also off, resulting in missed calls, or the inability to make calls until the computer was on and booted. Because of this inability to function while the computer was off, I started using a competitor’s product, NetTalk Duo, which connected directly to my router and did not require that it be connected to a powered and booted computer, meaning that it was always functional as long as I had an Internet connection.

Recently, a new MagicJack Plus ($69.99 retail, 30 day trial available) was introduced which maintained all of the features, portability and services of the original MagicJack, including the first year of service, but now offers the user the choice of being USB connected to a live computer (just like the original product) or being connected directly to a broadband router, which will provide an always-on capability. With this router option, there is no need for the MagicJack Plus to be connected to a computer as long as the broadband connection is live and the router is powered.

The new MagicJack Plus comes in a package with the simple pictorial connection instructions inside the cover, and registration instructions on the back cover. The device itself is about the same small size as the original device (1.7 x 2.7 x 0.7 inches), black in color, with a small blue LED on the front corner that indicates that the device has power, and a green LED by the Ethernet connection, which indicates that a signal is present. On the right side of the device is a standard male USB connector, with the left side having both Ethernet and phone jacks. In the package with the device is a short USB extension cable, Ethernet cable and a wall plug transformer with a standard USB connection. Connecting the device is simple and intuitive. To originally set up and register the device requires that the device be connected to a powered USB port on the computer (or a fully powered hub); the included USB extension cable can be used to connect the device if port spacing is a problem.

When connected directly to the computer via USB either for the one-time registration process or for computer based telephone service, the device and its drivers will automatically load unless the security software on the computer blocks external devices from automatically running. If the USB connected MagicJack will not automatically load when inserted with the computer booted, the user may either uncheck the security software box that restricts external devices from automatically loading, or may manually run the “autorun.exe” on the MagicJack drive, which will download, update, and install the MagicJack software on the computer, and start the registration process. If it is desired to run in USB mode whenever the computer is on, the MagicJack installation process will insert a file in the computer startup sequence that will automatically load the MagicJack software at the next boot.

While the actual one-time registration process was simple, it was burdened by a series of about a dozen screens attempting to up-sell the user into purchasing additional features and services. One of the first up-sell screens offers the user the choice of being assigned a free local phone number by choosing a state, area code and city, or for a $10 fee the user could create a vanity phone number using any combination of available numbers and letters, or the user can select a Canadian phone number. While not displayed at this time during the registration process, MagicJack does offer the ability to transfer an existing phone number to the MagicJack service. Another choice was the $3 fee for selecting your own “last four digits” of your assigned phone prefix. One problem became apparent for our local 409 area code; all of the phone numbers listed for 409 were for Galveston; there were no local numbers for the Golden Triangle area of Texas. Another screen offers an optional “this one time only” no-fault comprehensive warranty on the device itself for $1 per year instead of the normal $10 per year. The next screen offers the “5 Year Platinum Service Plan” which adds another 5 years of service, plus a 5 year extended warranty on the device, for a one-time charge of $99.95. A following screen offers a second year of service and a one-year warranty extension for $29.95. Still another screen offered the user the option of buying additional devices for $69.95, with free rush shipping. Not yet done selling additional services, subsequent registration screens offer deeply discounted prepaid international calling, and a $20 lifetime warranty. Once these up sell screens completed their sales pitch, the user enters an activation code e-mailed by MagicJack during the registration process; users are then shown their MagicJack phone number; given the opportunity (twice) to automatically e-mail friends and family the new phone number; and then choose the desired connection method, USB or Ethernet. The registration process is now completed, and the user may now make and receive unlimited calls using the MagicJack.

 

Once registered and activated, the MagicJack Plus can be used in USB mode by plugging any standard phone into the phone jack on the device; the power is provided by the USB port (note that this will not work on USB hubs that are not fully powered; many USB hubs do not provide full electrical power to attached devices). The device is now fully functional, and calls may be made using the dial on the phone or by dialing using the MagicJack phone book on the desktop.

Alternatively, once registered and activated, the MagicJack may be connected directly to the router using the included Ethernet cable, and powered by connecting the device directly to the wall-plug transformer or by using the included USB extension cable to the wall-plug power supply. Utilizing this method, which is my personal preference, is what provides the always-on functionality without the necessity of a powered computer. For those with a simple cable or DSL modem that does not include an extra Ethernet port, the big box office supply and electronics stores, as well as the discount stores, have a “network switch,” which is a simple box (about $15) that provides additional Ethernet ports to the cable or DSL modem, and functions as a router.

I found the new MagicJack Plus to be feature rich and reasonably priced for the amount of services provided, with very good voice quality. I like the portability and small size of the device, as well as the option to use it with a direct connection to the router, negating the necessity for a powered computer. On an annual basis, having unlimited local and long distance calling, directory assistance, caller ID, voice mail, 911 service, and conference calling for about $2.50 per month is a money saving bargain. I also found that the new MagicJack Plus does work fine with my home fax machine. Using the MagicJack connected to my router, I have not encountered any functional problems with it; the only negative issue is not having a local Golden Triangle phone number. Other then the several marketing screens displayed during the one-time registration process, the MagicJack Plus was very fast and easy to install, configure, and setup. For those with broadband Internet, the new MagicJack Plus may be an effective alternative to high local and long distance phone bills.

Listen to Ira Wilsker’s weekly radio show on Mondays from 6-7 p.m. on KLVI 560AM.

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