NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, March 2009
magicJack – Bargain Phone Service Through Your Computer
(NOTE TO EDITOR: magicJack is the correct spelling)
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

(click to email author)


You may have seen the TV commercials and infomercials about a telephone device called magicJack. The commercials bragged about how easy it was to install and use, and how cost effective it was compared to other telephone services, with is free local and long distance service. Being the skeptic about its claims, I had to try it for myself, so I obtained one directly from magicJack.

The device itself is a USB device, chrome colored plastic; about the length of a common USB flash drive, but twice as thick and twice as tall. It has a standard USB plug on the front, and a standard phone jack on the rear. One side is clear plastic, showing the circuit board inside, the other side has a sticker for a label, graphically showing the setup. The magicJack must be plugged into a USB port in the computer, or into an AC powered USB hub, but should never be connected to an unpowered USB hub, because the powered USB port provides the power to the telephone, which must be attached to the device.

When I received the package from magicJack, I was slightly dismayed because there was no software CD or instruction book, only the device and a USB extension cord (not often necessary), and the cardboard cover. The only real instructions were printed on the inside front cover of the package, which had the heading “60 seconds for a lifetime of savings, here’s how easy it is …” and three circular photos displaying the steps. Step 1 was “Plug any phone into magicJack”; step 2 was “Plug magicJack into any USB port”; and step 3, “Pick up your phone and talk for free!” That just seemed too simple, so I tried it. I plugged the cord from an old phone into the back of the magicJack, and plugged the magicJack into an empty port on my powered USB hub. I picked up the telephone handset, and had a dial tone, a good first sign. When plugged into the USB hub, the magicJack was identified by the computer as a USB device, and started to install its software on my computer. In about a minute, including downloading updated software, my magicJack was fully installed. I was greeted with a window where I entered my registration information, 911 information, and selected a prefix from area code 409, and it assigned me a phone number with a 497 (Galveston) prefix. Seconds later, I received a confirming email, and a separate email telling me about my 911 service, and my magicJack was fully functional. Being nosy, I used Windows Explorer to look at the software in the magicJack device, and saw that it actually installed as two drives, one with the software, and the other was the telephone device.

Without fussing with the address book and other features now on my desktop, I picked up the phone, dialed my wife’s office using required 10 digit dialing and it rang! Total elapsed time from opening the FedEx package to making my first phone call was less than five minutes. My wife said the voice quality was fine. I called my daughter in Atlanta, and left her a voice mail message; the system worked flawlessly. In the next few minutes I called several other people, including one of my coworkers in his office. He has a son who is currently working in Japan, and I saw that magicJack used AT&T for its international service, at a discount of up to 95% off of retail international long distance rates, and calls to Japan were only 2.5 cents a minute on a prepaid international plan using the magicJack.

MagicJack is widely available from the big box electronic stores and online (http://www.magicjack.com) for about $40. This price includes the device, and a full year’s local and long distance service to the US and to Canada. In addition to the phone service, supplemental services are included at no extra charge, such as caller ID, call forwarding, call waiting, free 411 directory assistance, and voice mail. Extra years (note that this is “years” and not “months”) are $19.95 per year as a “license fee”, including all of the services. People who try and like magicJack can purchase up to five additional years of service for a total of $60 for all five years, making it only $12 a year, or a dollar a month; compare this to more traditional phone service rates from any other source. MagicJack uses a well proven technology called VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, the exact same technology used by the cable company’s digital phone service, and other services such as the widely advertised Vonage, and Skype.

MagicJack requires that the user have some form of broadband internet service, such as cable or DSL, and works fine on Wi-Fi, WiMax, and FiOS services. It does not wok well or at all on dialup or satellite internet services. The software runs on Windows XP and Vista, and on recent Apple Macs. Other than a telephone (either wired or cordless), to connect to the magicJack no other hardware or software is required. When using the phone, magicJack uses about 80k of internet bandwidth to send and receive high quality digital phone data. This 80k of bandwidth is just a small fraction of the available bandwidth in even a budget broadband connection, which still allows for the internet to be used with minimal degradation while a call is being made. MagicJack is also not a resource hog, as I monitored its memory usage in Windows Task Manager, where it used about 6 megs of memory in standby mode, and about 11 megs when in use. This small overhead did not degrade performance on any computer I tried it on.

The magicJack device is very portable, as long as there is access to a computer and broadband internet. I have read in the blogs that there are thousands of US military personnel who use magicJack in Iraq and Afghanistan to call home for free, as the device is registered with a domestic phone number, and domestic calls are free; the internet does not care where the call is being made from. One of my daughter’s recently taught college in Europe for a summer, and if she would have had a magicJack with her, she could have called us or we could have called her for free.

The magicJack software appears on the desktop as an interactive phone pad, and may be displayed as a large image, small image, or dropped down to an icon in the system tray. Phone numbers may be entered on the screen, or manually dialed on the phone. Received calls are displayed with their caller ID phone number, and dialed calls are displayed on a call list. Clicking on a number allows the number to be entered into a contact list, where additional information can be entered for one click dialing. A single click will also dial the free 411 directory assistance, as well as start other telephone services, such as voice mail. One interesting optional free feature is a small software utility which can be downloaded from magicJack, which integrates Outlook contacts with the magicJack software which creates an Outlook toolbar. Clicking on the toolbar dials the selected phone number from Outlook contacts. If service or support is needed, it is provided by online chat or via a directory of frequently asked questions; no live voice support is available.

I was especially impressed with the voicemail function. By default, magicJack uses voicemail for unanswered calls. Voicemail can be accessed from anywhere by dialing your home phone number, and then pressing “*” when the voice mailbox opens, and entering your four digit password. An especially cute feature is that voicemail messages are also converted into a WAV file which is a universal standard audio format, and emailed to the registered email address. I received a 20 second voicemail, and listened to it in my email!

I only have two issues with magicJack, one of which the company can address, the other it can not. First, while magicJack offers local phone numbers in virtually all area codes in the US and Canada, the only prefix in area code 409 was a Galveston number, meaning that it would be a long distance call for people here in southeast Texas to call my magicJack assigned phone number. To be fair, I did check on the Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta area codes, and there were true local numbers for my kids, to whom I recommended getting a magicJack. The second issue is that the computer must be left on in order to get 24 hour phone service, a practice which I have recommended against in the past. There have been a few references in the blogs about people hooking up a magicJack to a broadband router and making it work when the computer is off, but many others who tried it were unsuccessful and claim that the few successes were a hoax. Currently, I use my magicJack to supplement, but not replace, my primary home phone, but for those who leave their computer on 24 hours, it may be used to replace a primary phone.

All in all, I was very impressed with magicJack, its ease of installation, its features, sound quality, and its price. To me, it is almost unfathomable how anyone can get high quality and full featured local and long distance phone service for as little as a dollar a month. MagicJack does precisely that, and does it very well.

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