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Hands-On MagicJack

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Can a small device the size of a pack of gum save you money on your phone calls? That's what MagicJack, a phone service provider, promises. The USB-based device uses your Internet connection to let you make and receive calls without the hefty costs levied by traditional telephone operators. But can this device become your main phone line?

Priced at $39.95, the starter kit includes the MagicJack device, a USB extension cord, and a year of unlimited local and long-distance phone calls — including voicemail — within the United States and Canada (international calling is also available for a fee). After that, the service costs $19.95 / year, significantly less than what most Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) providers charge.

Setting up the MagicJack is simple: you plug a regular corded or cordless phone into the phone jack on the device (you can also use a computer headset), plug the device into a USB port on a computer running Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Mac OS X (Intel-based Macs only), and the MagicJack automatically installs. Because the software stays on the device, you don't have to worry about downloading any software onto your computer. This means that you can use your MagicJack on any computer, not just your own.

During installation, you will be prompted to register the device, which involves setting up a phone number based on your location. After you've confirmed your e-mail address, the device is ready for use. When MagicJack is plugged in, the MagicJack interface pops onscreen after about 10 seconds. What you see is a virtual dial pad for punching in a phone number (you can also use the standard keypad if you are using a regular phone), a contacts list, virtual buttons, features such as voicemail and redial, and a list of 911 locations. Because MagicJack is a VoIP service (like Vonage, Comcast's Digital Voice, or Skype) and not a traditional landline, the company can't offer true 911 service that pinpoints your location. For emergency services, you are required to provide locations where you'll be using MagicJack, so that information can be relayed. (Most VoIP providers function this way.)

In our tests, MagicJack worked as promised. After a no-brainer setup, we were calling and receiving calls in no time. MagicJack offers caller ID, so you can see who's calling. Our test environments included a home broadband Internet connection and a high-speed office connection, and MagicJack worked fine in both locations. But, due to high-traffic volume on our office connection, our calls suffered from static, lack of clarity, and drop-ins and drop-outs.

Can MagicJack replace your current home phone or even your current VoIP provider, such as Vonage? The answer is no. To take advantage of MagicJack, you'll need a good broadband Internet connection. Also, it relies on your computer being turned on 24/7, otherwise the calls you receive will go straight to voicemail.

Think of MagicJack as a companion to your landline, like a cell phone. If you need to make long-distance phone calls frequently, the affordable annual fee makes it more attractive than what a traditional phone company can provide. And, because it's portable, you can take it anywhere around the world. Frequent travelers, for instance, can make "local calls" to the US or Canada while in Japan without incurring any long distance charges.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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