With I opened my long-distance bill a few months back, I nearly hit the floor. Unlike most human beings in my line of work, I keep my cellphone usage to an absolute minimum and still love the security and comfort of my trusty landline phone, but I have to admit its been tough going. Its all about the taxes, which when you combine all the various and incidental telecommunications surcharges, that relatively low-cost emergency landline can end up being a major inconvenience. Out of fairness I won’t say who my broadband/phone provider is, but while researching my various options I was dismayed to find out that nearly all the major players claim innocence to the heavy-duty costs of maintaining a standard phone jack. Its time to find a solution!
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that anyone who might have seen the various advertisements for the MagicJack service will find their financial savior in this device’s considerably low-asking price. A small, USB device that runs off a free USB 2.0 jack on your PC (Windows XP, Vista, MAC) would seem like a great idea to anyone looking to cut the financial blues of their respective telecommunications company, but after using the device for a few weeks my interest quickly went from sincere to somewhat disgusted. I really, really wanted to like this service and what its message (particularly the one about saving money) would mean for those looking to cut the landline bills, but deceptive advertising and almost non-existent customer support killed that dream fairly quickly.
The concept is simple enough. MagicJack sends a small package containing the USB device and small USB-extender. Simply plug the device into an open USB 2.0 enabled slot on your computer (desktop or laptop is fine) and the unit’s self-contained software installs itself. At the end of the unit is a standard phone jack, which you’ll definitely want to plug in your favorite landline phone. After a fairly easy activation process, you’ll be ready to make calls either by simply dialing as usual on your standard phone, or using the mandatory on-screen software that’s similar to other computer-only VoiP services. In case you’re curious, you can also substitute a set of microphone headsets that are popular with other services like Skype.
MagicJack claims to give a host of popular services with every new account, including calls to/from the United States and Canada, voicemail, Caller ID, Call Waiting, 3-Way Calling, and more. Its good that they promise them, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known they were even there. In my testing, the MagicJack unit failed to pick up at least half of the voicemails friends tried to leave, and that was even if the unit registered an incoming call at all. But if you’re like me and actually like to call out to other people (who doesn’t?), then this is where the service really fails to deliver. As this is a VoiP service, the quality of your call will largely depend on not just the speed of your upload/download broadband connection, but the time of day and (thanks to its mandatory software usage) what other fun stuff your computer happens to be running.
Again, no mention of these stricter requirements are mentioned during the sign-up process or during any customer service queries (see below). While it should be common sense to realize that a broadband-enabled phone service would require free broadband juice, its specifically tying the unit’s quality to the performance of your computer that could be the ultimate buzz-killer. My tests included several different machines (all Windows-based, I’m afraid), with varying levels of power. The results were bizarre to say the least, but it would seem that the only consistency with every configuration was that the MagicJack failed to deliver its promised service.
Customer support, as I mentioned above, is almost non-existent. Its a known fact that a good percentage of a company’s budget is set aside for customer support, and its telling that given MagicJack‘s unnaturally low asking price that customer support seems to have been an afterthought. Try navigating the myriad of confusing prompts to get to a ‘live person’ and you’ll be treated with several prompts to allow the website to fix the problem itself. The system itself seems set on having you wade through an endless and thoroughly useless set of Frequently Asked Questions before it’ll let you begin a chat session with a representative. And that’s the fun part, as the reps themselves seem to know very little about the actual product itself, and I could swear that nearly all the answers were stock and scripted. Hugely disappointing.
As I had originally signed-up for the free trial, cancelling the service meant going through the customer support and obtaining the proper return-postage information. To be fair, my experience with this process seems to have been much smoother than others. A quick look online at how other customers faired seems to indicate that I was very lucky, with countless stories of the company billing prematurely, double-billing, and in some cases not offering promised refunds. I cannot validate or authenticate these experiences (to be honest, people exaggerate), but as the service requires a credit card on file it might be smart to make sure your bank account has adequate funds. Just a thought.
One last thing that potential subscribers should be extremely concerned about, and that’s how the MagicJack keeps tabs on your private information and how (if at all) the company relates this to new customers. This lack of transparency is also quite shocking, as the demonstration video that is listed on the company’s front-page clearly shows a person plugging the USB device into his computer and immediately placing a call. FALSE. To use the service, a piece of software pre-loaded onto the USB device’s memory must be activated and active at all times. Its through this application that MagicJack is able to serve targeted advertisements to users at all times, even to the point where the application will ‘take over’ the user’s desktop and place itself on top of anything else they might be using.
“You also understand and agree that use of the magicJack device and Software will include advertisements. Advertisements will be served through the magicPage™ Software or the magicJack softphone – the software/softphone attempts to serve local advertisements and classifieds using a completely automated process that enables us to effectively target dynamically changing content. Our computers may analyze the phone numbers and your registration information you call in order to improve the relevance of the ads.” (source)
I would also ask potential customers to closely read those positive reviews of this product, as even the most optimistic impressions seem a bit phony and plastic to me. It would seem that nearly all positive reviews of the MagicJack seem to tout the unit’s great potential and services offered, and not the actual performance outside of a few quick minutes. Normally I wouldn’t bother drawing your gazing eyeballs to such things, but given the enormity of hubris this company displays on their official website (which seems more concerned with videos of some new cats) in tooting their own horns, those potential customers deserve a bit more honestly and openness (particular in their targeted-advertising policy) than their superficial attempts give them.
Skype and Vonage killer? Hardly, although its easy to see how such a small and transportable device could replace any cumbersome headsets that most PC-only options lay on users, although any suggestion of the MagicJack ‘killing’ Vonage at this point is good for a chuckle. There’s just so much wrong with its current system, from inferior technology to nearly-absent customer service, I can’t imagine anyone outside the most gifted engineer being satisfied with the product this company is offering. My advice to anyone curious about how such a service – with its tantalizingly low price – could compete with the big boys of VoiP technology is to consider not what they’re getting, but what they’re not.
MagicJack strikes me as a product that’s more concerned with gathering customers than serving them, and when you combine deceptive advertising with inferior customer support and service its probably best to keep looking. There are considerably better, and less infuriating, solutions out there.