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Bonus Review: magicJack Internet Calling

After last week's column on ways to trim the costs of a technological life, a reader e-mailed to ask about a gizmo called the magicJack that provides unmetered Internet phone calls to the U.S. and Canada. The reader wanted to know if it worked or not:

"Sounds too good to be true; have you had any experience or know much about this product?"

This person was asking at the right time: A review unit of this gadget -- it sells for $39.95, which includes the first year of calling, after which you'd pay $19.95 for the next year of service -- had shown up the day before.

The magicJack itself is a tiny pod that plugs into a USB port on your computer, and which offers to install its accompanying software (Windows XP and Vista, or Macs with Intel processors) when you first plug it in.

This software installation is semi-automatic, in the sense that you don't see what's getting put where, you just click a button to authorize the install and then wait for it to load. I found that a little sketchy, but I have seen more than my share of dodgy software installations.

After that, I had to set up an account, which did not involve furnishing any billing information but which did require me to answer a few marketing-inspired questions (for instance, which company I pay for TV service) that, I presume, will help magicJack's management sell ads. Yes, its software is designed to display advertisements while you use it -- a fact that the magicJack Web site fails to highlight.

As others have noted, the magicJack terms of service reveal an even less appetizing detail: The service can also target its ads by watching what phone numbers you call.

The setup concludes by asking you to choose an area code, after which you'll be assigned a phone number. You then plug any regular phone to the phone jack at the other end of this pod and make calls as you always would.

Voice quality, however, was not that great in my calls, and certainly not as good as I'd been led to expect in other reviews (for example, the Travel section's evaluation in March). I sometimes heard an echo of my own voice; at other times, the other person's speech dropped out for an instant before returning to normal.

When these calls appear to cost nothing, that can be an acceptable tradeoff. But the magicJack's operating costs aren't limited to the $40 price or the $20 fee for subsequent years of service. You must keep your computer on and awake, or incoming calls will get bounced to voicemail. If you connect the magicJack to a desktop that was earlier set to go to sleep automatically, this added usage could easily add $50 to your yearly electric bill.

I'm even less comfortable with the way this operation presents itself to the public. Its Web site offers no real-world contact information, not even the city in which it's based -- and even the site of its parent company, YMAX Communications, lists nothing more specific than a Palm Beach, Fla., P.O. box. Add to that the few complaints I've gotten from readers (in March, one complained in an e-mail that his credit card had been charged twice for his order, after which the company's online tech support failed to fix the problem), and I'm not comfortable recommending this product.

If you've used the magicJack and have a different opinion, here's your chance to dissent. The comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 6, 2008; 11:52 AM ET
Categories:  Telecom , Tips  
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Comments

I tried for couple of days in US and send it to India. It's waste of money. I do have vonage on the same broadband line and its working fine.

You pay for what you get! Its better to donate the money to charity than a poor quality service.

Posted by: Praba | October 6, 2008 12:28 PM | Report abuse

We've been using the magicJack for about a month now and have been very happy with the quality. We had Verizon before and were paying $40 a month without even long distance service. Even with leaving the pc on all the time the savings surpass using Verizon. The call clarity has been great, even when calling internationally. I do wish there was a way to turn off the voice mail so I could use my own message record though.

Posted by: Jeff | October 6, 2008 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I bought my MagicJack about 6months ago, after having heard about it from a friend and after having seen the infomercial the company uses to sell the product. I rcvd my MJ within a few days of ordering off their website and it installed just as you explained, the software self-loaded and after completing the registration process I started making phone calls. I've been using the MJ ever since and I love it. I never use my cell phone when I'm home or if I'm staying at a friends or at a hotel. The call quality is really good, much better than my cell phone but from what I've been told, not as good as a traditional land-line, although its been awhile since I've regularly used a landline. So far I've not seen any advertising from MJ and I don't really care about whether they start doing it. All phone companies already know who you call, as its detailed in every bill you get from your cell phone provider, and in this day and age, everyone will start sending Advertising to users on phones and PDAs. Google and MSN track every move anyone makes online and build a user profile to deliver Ads. Welcome to the 21st Century. I just love the fact I dont have to pay for phone calls anymore!

Posted by: Tracy | October 6, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse

MagicJack has changed our lives! In this down economy, every bit helps and MJ has saved our family hundreds of $$$ per month in long-distance bills! We have 2 kids in college and 2 more in high school. As you can imagine, we have a lot of phone calls being made everyday by our family. Each of the kids have their own MagicJack and use it exclusively to talk on the phone while at home and its been a great relief knowing we can talk as long and as often as we want with our kids away at college. They've also gotten used to calling their friends from their dorm rooms using their MagicJack. Needless to say, we love the product. Everyone has their own phone line for less than $20/yr per MJ. Who can beat that these days? Thanks MagicJack!

Posted by: Kurt | October 6, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Not much magic in magicjack. The quality is horrible. When I am doing anything on the computer, the quality is not very good. If I have to have a computer exclusively for a telephone, it does not make much sense. Also, phone companies that don't have anyone you can contact, does not sound promising. I threw mine in the trash. I think I will give one of the others a try.

Posted by: Michael | October 6, 2008 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Definitely not a replacement phone service. More like the thing you buy on a TV commercial at 2am and then toss in the trash a few weeks later. It only works half the time. It has been months, and I have not seen a refund so I am assuming that I have to write that off as a loss!

Posted by: Jim | October 6, 2008 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Wow, that "Kurt" fellow who commented above should get a job working for MagicJack's PR department...or maybe they already employ him.

Posted by: William | October 6, 2008 10:21 PM | Report abuse

I've been using majicjack for about a week or so and have had no problems. it's connected to a computer that I use as my file server for my small home network so the computer is on all the time anyway.

The quality, for the most part, is ok. It's no worse than most cell phones I've used.

Posted by: Paul | October 7, 2008 12:52 AM | Report abuse

I love MagicJack! I can hardly believe how much money I have saved on long distance calls. Voice quality will improve if you uninstall some of the "junk" that came preinstalled when you bought your computer. I think you save wear and tear on your computer if you leave it on 24/7 anyway.

Posted by: zena 68 | October 7, 2008 5:51 AM | Report abuse

I have two of the MJs. I have used them mainly from overseas to call back and they work fine, very usable, not great, but free. The minor problems I ran into were trying to hook up the USB to my ultralight laptop USB. Once I used the docking portion with an AC powered USB even the laptop worked fine. I now have one setup as a fax line. Since my computers are on 24/7 I save the cost to Verizon of another line. Its not magic, but it works as well/better as Skype for calls to the US, which is most of my usage.

Posted by: Steve | October 7, 2008 9:19 AM | Report abuse

We bought a Magicjack for home use and it works fine. Then we bought one for my father-in-law and it has worked less than half the time. I have contacted them on-line 3 times. I have tried all the suggestions and no luck. They finally told me to get a separate usb hub that has it's own power source. It's frustrating that you cannot talk to anyone other than instant message. They finally agreed to send a replacement. We paid for 5 years and they are unwilling to refund any of it. They say I am past my 30 days. That's ridiculous. I can see the first year applying to the 30 day trial, but not the rest of the 5-year term.

Posted by: Mel | October 7, 2008 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Our Internet service is not always reliable and my magic jack cuts in and out on the telephone service. My friends would definitely not buy one after talking with me while I am on the magic jack. I have been able to contact service people live on-line, and they solved some issues we had. I would definitely not buy another one.

Posted by: Scottie | October 7, 2008 9:29 AM | Report abuse

We already had Vonage, Skype, and cell phones (we ditched our land lines 3 years ago). We got Magic Jack as a "hedge" in case Vonage went belly-up with little warning. MJ voice quality isn't as good as Vonage, but it's not bad. I use it for my outgoing business calls (lots of long-dist call lasting 1 or 2 hours), so as not to tie up the Vonage line for my wife. All-in-all, it has been well worth the very little $$ it cost us.

Posted by: John | October 7, 2008 9:41 AM | Report abuse

It seems to me this board has gotten flooded with MJ "testimonials" from sketchy people. I doubt very highly that real users would write reviews such as the ones posted. Buyer beware.

Posted by: Comments | October 7, 2008 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm in Canada and using MJ and find it excellent. That may be due to the fact that we have great hi-speed internet service, or it may be due to the fact that ISPs here are not into purposely "doing things" to INTERFERE with MJ and other VoiP applications. (Don't think that doesn't happen, phone companies that own ISPs in the States are into interfering with these devices because they see the "handwriting on the wall" and aren't about to give up their revenue easily!).I also have Vonage, it works well also. I've used MJ many times for overseas calls and it is "very good".

Posted by: Noel | October 7, 2008 10:03 AM | Report abuse

I bought two MJ's and gave one to my daughter who lives in Kansas. (I'm In St. Louis) When I set hers up I found MJ did not have her Kansas (316) area code. I decided to use the St. Louis (314) area code and got an unexpected bonus for her. St. Louis callers can call her for free!
Yes, the quality sometimes is rough, but it does work. Another bonus is the voicemail. When you get a VM message, MJ sends you an Email notifying you of the message and... it attaches a audio file of the message to the Email! I like that. (you still can retrieve VM from the phone)

Posted by: Chet | October 7, 2008 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I use MJ solely for outgoing long distance on a desktop hardwired to a high-speed Verizon DSL line. I've experimented with several telephone handsets, and the quality of the MJ experience will vary widely with the handset used and how the MJ microphone volume adjustment is set (to control the echo). That said, it works just fine for my purposes. Note, it does not work as well on a wireless network but even then, I'm not sure my cell phone works that much better all the time.

Posted by: Allan | October 7, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse

What i like about the MJ is the government hasn't figured out yet how to tap calls made on it.

Posted by: Mike Levinson | October 7, 2008 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I've used MJ for over 6 months. Phone quality is not great, but I can talk to my 12yr old Grandaughter in Canada for over an hour at a time for no charge. Quaility for calls to Canada is not wonderful, but my calls within the US seem to have better quality. HOWEVER, my daughter-in-law in Canada bought one (had to have a Detroit phone number) and she could not get hers to work.

Posted by: Paul-AZ | October 7, 2008 4:17 PM | Report abuse

This post is littered with MJ employees writing the good reviews and their competition like Vonage, Ooma, Skype...oh and prob Verizona and AT&T, too posting the negative reviews. The debate on this thing is almost as entertaining as Obama vs. McCain or Biden vs. Palin! I bought my MJ b/c I saw on QVC and figured if its good enough to be sold on QVC its good enough for me. Plus I tend to believe industry experts like the editors of PCMagazine, LAPTOP and NYTimes over biased bullwriters on blogsites. So,I bought an MJ, and it definetly works and is saving me money. Is the quality as good as a landline? Nope. But its every bit as good as a cell phone and its a hellava lot cheaper. I've also tried Skype and their quality is horrible. I have a friend who has Vonage at home and its about the same quality based on my trying her phone to make calls. I've never had any issues with my MJ so I can't comment on the lack of customer support or about any of the other complaints posted by others. The most important thing for me is that it allows me to make all my long-distance phone calls and that it works and its the least expensive phone product out in the market. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to save money, makes alot of long distance calls and doesnt really care about getting lots of handholding by customer service people located in another country!

Posted by: Barb | October 7, 2008 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I purchased two. One at home and one for travel overseas. Recently was in China and the system worked great calling back to my home unit AND other (non-MJ) US numbers. Very clear voice but did lose signal once or twice - WAY better than Skype. Used MS Live wireless headset for more freedom.

Posted by: Tom | October 7, 2008 5:11 PM | Report abuse

since I don't know one single person who still pays special rates for long distance calls, I presume that every comment above is astroturf

Posted by: Anonymous | October 7, 2008 9:25 PM | Report abuse

I consider myself to be tech savvy and this product caused me some nightmares. At first it did not want to install and after I got it to install, I had to pull teeth to get it set up. I was able to make calls from it but was not able to call the number from another line (I got the annoying message that the number I called is not in service). when I tried contacting tech support, I found myself jumping between pages on their website without anything leading to the live support that the icon promised with a little smiley face. Needless to say I sent it back.

Posted by: Steve | October 8, 2008 9:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm amazed at the supposed tech savvy who claim to have so many problems with the install or the customer support.

If you really are tech savvy then you know that your PC (USB 1??)with all its running software, virus, spyware, your Internet Bandwidth, etc.can easily be the real culprit of your poor experience.

I have the MAGIC JACK it works well; period. I don't work for them, their PR firm or have any other interest other than an providing an honest review of my experience.

Posted by: Guy | October 8, 2008 10:18 AM | Report abuse

The majic jack is great and the quality of it is good.

Posted by: unknown | October 8, 2008 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Its great. I love it. The phone bill saves me over $1,000 annually. my home phone bill was $100 monthly and now we are talking $20 annually. THIS IS THE BEST PHONE LINE EVER. My kids think its great. They are not charged for talling over 15 miles for long distances anymore.

Posted by: unknown | October 8, 2008 10:36 AM | Report abuse

10/8/08

The quality is mediocre at best for USA to USA calls. It didn't work at all for calls from USA to China (voice broken...gaps between packets?). I haven't tried China to the USA. My handset was not top of the line though and I was using a connector cable from my USB port to MJ which may have contributed to the problem.

The lack of live support is annoying enough by itself to not recommend MJ at this time. Also, I have seen their infomercials and they are deceptive. Recently, the obnoxious moron who used to be on one of the shopping channels, is now the star. His presence alone is reason enough not to buy the product. I hope MJ is listening for a change. I work for myself.

Posted by: R. Norton | October 8, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I've been using a couple MagicJacks for a few months and really like them. However, I found that they work best on systems with a couple GB of RAM, but that wasn't a thorough lab test; just a personal observation. If you don't have quality broadband connectivity and more than 1GB of RAM, caveat emptor.

Posted by: Phil | October 8, 2008 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I have Skype which works great but you can't call business numbers, so I bought MJ so I can call business's. The clarity is not as good as Skpe or a landline but between the two I'm saving a hundred dollars a month easy. Very happy with the purchase. As for the person who posted "It seems to me this board has gotten flooded with MJ "testimonials" from sketchy people. I doubt very highly that real users would write reviews such as the ones posted. Buyer beware."

I am a real user and the product does work maybe not as clear as a landline but you're not paying the high price of long distance on a land line. I would recommend it and have recommended it to friends.

Posted by: Sandy | October 8, 2008 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I tried ooma after hearing all of the inconsistent reviews for MJ. $249 ooma box plugs into my internet connection and my dect phone system and now I get FREE calls to any number in the US. The voice quality is incredible and I'm hooked on having a 2nd line on the same number, we can have twp concurrent calls at the same time. Unreal.

Posted by: jerry | October 9, 2008 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I have now used the MJ for about a year as my primary outgoing business line. I can't say that there have not been some quality issues during this time, but about 95% of the time it works as well as the Qwest line ($48 a month plus long distance), that I have for incoming calls. If you are running a business I would not suggest that you rely totally on VOIP connections.

I did find that when I purchased a new router recently (D-Link DIR-655) the QOS technology greatly improved the stability of the call quality. They cost about $99 at this time, and have the benefit improved video streaming as well.

I don't think that the MJ will work well on an older computer unless it is dedicated to the MJ. I have second one that I carry with my laptop computer so I can make calls whenever I have WiFi. I prefer talking on the MJ over the cell phone if the conversation is going to be of any length.

Posted by: Rich | October 9, 2008 11:56 AM | Report abuse

First, I am NOT an employee of any company realted to MagicJack. I first heard about it on an infomercial about 3 months ago. I Thought it might be worth a try but then forgot about it. I then heard Clark Howard talk about it on WIBC here in Indy - he's a finacial expert - and he had fairly good praises for it. Then one early morning, I see an informercial again where they're offering it free for 30 days. I didnt even have to pay the shipping. (I did however pay $3.95 for 3 day delivery and it was charged to my credit card). I'm in week two right now.

I got the MJ because we gave up our land line about 2 years ago. The land line was costing us about $30/month for just basic service - this did not include long distance, call-waiting, voice messaging, etc... just bare bones service. The only calls I received were telemarketers so I felt like I was paying $30/month for nothing. After several months of not having a land line, I found my cell phone bill was increasing each month because I was going over my minutes with Verizon. After some evaluation of my phone usage, I realized I was calling my daughter and grandsons - in Georgia and my mother - in Florida - neither of whom are on Verizon and NO Verizon, they are not interested in changing. Anyway, these calls were the ones putting me over my minutes. I dont like having to call after 9pm - the grandsons are in bed by then. So MJ sounded like a good opportunity to save some money, have a home based phone so I can call my family when I want to, not when Verizon says its cheaper.

It came, I installed it - it installed fairly easily. The voice quality is not great but like others have said, its not any worse than the cell phone. My only problem was being able to "hear" my voice mail through my computer speakers. I "talked" with 3 tech support operators and still cannot "hear" my voice mail except through my phone. At this point its not a problem for me. We were already leaving the computer on 24/7 so that doesn't bother me either. The only other issue was that the computer's performance decreased if the MJ was plugged in. So now I just unplug the MJ when on the computer. Understand our computer is a 2003. I have no idea of the RAM, gigs or anything like that - I just know its out dated and slow even without the MJ. And our internet service is broadband. But, if I'm using the computer and the MJ is unplugged, the call goes to voicemail and I can retrieve it later.

Overall, I'm happy with the product for what I've paid for it. I would never pre-pay like someone else did. I'm not that confident in anything to pay ahead 5 years. I've recommended it to several people at work and my family members. I dont think it will ever be as good as a real land line and we've never tried any other VOIP; but for $20/year... I appreciate the little bit of freedom it gives me and I can live with it.

Posted by: DenniBinIndy | October 9, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

It came quickly, installed without a hiccup, and the voice quality is fine. It's always better than my Vonage and mobile service. I've yet to see any ads.

Posted by: Eric | October 10, 2008 1:39 AM | Report abuse

SOMETIMES I MUST BE DUMBER THAN OTHERS [NO PUN INTENDED.]

IF EVERYONE HAS GIVEN UP THEIR PHONE LINE, THEN WHAT INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDER ARE THEY USING -- UNLESS THAT ARE ALREADY PAYING BIG BUCKS FOR CABLE IN THE FIRST PLACE ???

Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR | October 10, 2008 2:14 AM | Report abuse

I'm curious. I would say that most of the time you get what you pay for. Does anyone know what the system requirements are and /or the borderline areas. I see a lot of issues with clarity and what not but no computer specs with them. Could that be the difference in the quality for some and not for some.
Also does anyone know is it possible to use an existing number, or do they have to assign you one?

thanks in advance for any info someone might have.

Posted by: Bill | October 11, 2008 2:17 AM | Report abuse

i bought mine 3 months ago, before that i had timewarner. mine works great, i save 460.00 a year. big ass savings well worth it.buy buy buy.and no i do not work for magicjack

Posted by: ipod45 | October 11, 2008 8:30 PM | Report abuse

I've had two of them since about April. First one was tested and after finding myself happy with it, I sent it to my daughter in Japan. She uses it to call home regularly now, as well as calling her friends here in the states; and we use our Vonage service to call her there. Talk forever and for all intents and purposes it's a local call for both of us.

Second one I use 2 to 3 weeks / month when I work from home as a supplement to my regular home phone.

Biggest problem I've had is I'm limited to 11Mbps on my wireless network @ home and with 4 other systems in the house voice quality suffers due to what I presume to be bandwidth limitations. Switched the system that the magicjack is connected to to a 100Mbps hardwire and no problems at all since then.

I LOVE the portability too. Take it with me whenever I go out of town and don't have to burn limited minutes on my cell phone.

I wish magicjack paid commissions on recommendations; I know of at least 10 people who have purchased these on my recommendation and no one's come chasing after me with a stick yet.

Posted by: Phil | October 12, 2008 10:19 AM | Report abuse

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