Before I begin launching into this post, let me say I am very aware of the myriad “Proceed-with- Caution” reviews on the product called MagicJack; a relative newcomer in the world of VoIP phone companies which offers extremely cheap phone service using your existing Internet connection. This is the story of my journey to explore using it as an alternative to a costly monthly land line.
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I fall into the category of the baby boomer set who can be technologically progressive and old school at the same time. Facebook, texting, iPhoning – they all work for me. But darn, if I’m not also resistant to parting ways with some of my old tried and true technologies, no matter how prehistoric they seem to the 20-something crowd. In this post, I’m revealing my angst in deciding – once and for all – whether to abandon the home land line. How could I continue to justify the $40 per month fee when there were so many other ways in which I now favored communication? Around Christmas time 2008 I began a several month “search and deploy” mission. Well, a year, if I count all the waivering. What to do, what to do?
Go cell phone only? Too many things kept me from going there, not the least of which was trying to keep track of my cell phone in the house. How many times in a week do I have to call my cell from my land line only to ping it in a deep sofa crack?
After researching the costs of switching to other telephone companies, such as Vonage, or bundling my home service with cell phone service, nothing emerged a winning candidate for a cost-effective land line replacement option. I wouldn’t change unless I could find a radical savings. I use Skype when in coffee shops, but I don’t want to be teathered to my computer in the house in order to talk on the phone. Not to mention that the quality of the VoIP with Skype is inconsistent. I often have to abandon the Skype call because people at the other end report that I’m breaking up.
I soon found myself paying great attention to those MagicJack infomercials. $20 a year for phone service? Anything this good couldn’t be true, right? I’m here to say, so far, wrong — although there are some drawbacks and easily-Googled concerns. Here’s how it works.
It’s a gizmo a tad larger than a thumb drive. You plug one end into a USB port on your computer. You plug your phone into the other end, which has a standard phone jack (4P4C connector). The device is automatically detected and the software is installed in about 1 minute. Easy-peasy. It’s phone service via the Internet. Not quite the same as a land line over the land-based phone lines, but it is home phone service.
You can buy the MagicJack off the Infomercial, if you find it playing, or go to http://www.magicjack.com/. Otherwise, it’s for sale for $40 at Radio Shack. [Update 6-6-09: Just saw it advertised on TV at Best Buy]. That includes the first year’s phone service of $20. For the $20, you get the caller ID, call waiting, voice messaging, and free long distance in the U.S. International calling options are available for under 5 cents a minute.
You also get the software which is like other VoIP products such as Vonage, listing your incoming and outgoing calls, voice messages, contacts list, etc. You can listen to your messages over the phone or on your cpu or have them sent to email or text. In two clicks on my iPhone, I can listen to my voice messages without having to dial anything. Love it!
What are the downsides? There are several, so this is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
- You have to have high speed Internet and at least Windows XP.
- Your computer has to be on to pick up incoming calls. Otherwise, incoming calls go directly to voicemail.
- The MJ software opens upon starting your computer. And a 3″ x 4″ window pops up everytime there is an incoming or outgoing phone call. There is no way to turn off the software. A small annoyance for me.
- The MJ phone service does not guarantee integration with local 911 emergency services. You’ll want to read the fine print carefully and see if that’s an issue for you.
- This next one came via Ben S, who commented to this post. Alarm devices (home health care alert, burglar/fire alarm) that want to dial a central monitoring station will not be reliably able to dial out when there’s an emergency … particularly if you shut off your computer when you are away on vacation
- There is no easy way to uninstall the software. “The process required to uninstall the software requires multiple Windows Registry edits and the removal of several folders on the Windows system.” (http://uninstallmagicjack.com/)
- I’m presuming MJ has a lean tech support crew, based on reviews. [Update 6-9-09: Have never needed to use them; everything has worked perfectly since installation.]
- You have to get a new phone number with MJ. But you get to choose your area code and prefix, from a few choices, and MJ.com selects the last four digits. I received the most easily memorizable number that I’ve ever had.
- It runs through the Internet, which means you lose phone service if your Internet service is down or you have an electrical power outage. That’s what the cell phone is for…backup!
- If you use only a laptop at home, the MJ and phone have to follow you around with your laptop, unless you get a dedicated computer for the MJ that lives in a permanent location in your home. You then have to think through how to add phones (see next bullet). I presently have a desktop in my office area, so that’s not an issue. If/when I replace it with a laptop, I’ll just keep it for the MJ connection.
- You have to think through how to add extra phones, if you want more than one. I wanted to maintain the same distribution of phones that I had – one in every room. I came upon an excellent solution on how to keep all my existing phones using my existing wall jacks. I give credit to an Office Depot clerk who gave me the skinny on how to do this. I am leaving instructions at the very end of this post, if you’re interested.
I read an online review of the MJ as I was seeking useful tips about installation. Someone recommended having an externally powered USB hub for the MJ stating: “This will lighten the electrical load on your USB interface with the computer, also making magic jack more reliable.” I first plugged my MJ directly into the cpu. Had no problems. Still, I went for the extra USB hub with external power, for another $30.
In the MJ informercial, the announcer says, “Fire your phone company!” I did and boy did it feel good. I’m only five days into life with the MJ but service has been excellent. I do have to remember to turn my computer on if I’ve turned it off, in order to receive calls when I’m home, but people tend to call my cell if they don’t reach me at home. Callers have said the quality is clear (no static, or fish tank echoes).
My Total cost so far: $40 for the MJ and $30 for an AC powered USB hub, which I will make use of for other things. I will breakeven in less than two months. My new monthly phone bill? $1.67.
People thought I was crazy to move all my bill paying efforts online in 1990. I took the plunge and never looked back. I hope this plunge turns out to be equally positive and that there are no bait and switch price increases, or that the MJ service provider doesn’t go belly up, or the FCC doesn’t come down with some violation ruling. Anyone who knows me, knows I did my due diligence and found good reviews from the likes of the NY Times, PC Magazine, and CNBC. Still, I found an equal number of bad reviews and those warning of its Spyware tactics. Well, for however long this seemingly free lunch lasts, I will be saving money and I still have a land line. Yea!
How to Use Your Existing Wall Jacks for Additional Phones
- You’ll need a phone cord and a splitter/duplex wall jack adaptor.
- Locate where your existing phone service comes into your house. Unplug it. This may be the hardest part of the setup if you don’t know how to find it. I ended up finding it quite easily as it turns out, as Comcast (my phone service provider before MJ) had installed a box into my utility cabinet, into which both the outside coaxial cable and the main phone line were plugged. The phone line was plugged into the box with a standard plug, so no cutting or unscrewing of wires was needed.
- Plug the Magic Jack into your computer USB port as instructed. Then instead of plugging your phone into the other end, plug a standard phone cord into it running the other end of the cord into one slot of a duplex or splitter jack apadator. Plug that adaptor into your wall jack.
- Now plug your phone into the other slot of the duplex jack adaptor.
When you do this, now all your existing phones work, and run off the MJ in one complete circuit. The whole process took me no more than 20 minutes!
[2013 Note: I've have since purchased the MagicJack Plus and replaced the MagicJack unit. See my updated post about this.]