Everybodyís seen their ad on TV. Well, now itís time to review an engin voice box and see whether itís as easy to use and of as high quality as they claim. As their marketing suggests, engin are aiming their Voice over IP (VoIP) solution squarely at the mums and dads who may have caught wind of this VoIP buzzword and are keen to find out how using the Internet for cheap calls actually works.
Intro to VoIP
For those who haven't heard a thing about it yet, Voice over IP (VoIP) is a technology which allows telephone calls to be made over the internet or any other TCP network. It began 10 years ago as the result of work done by some Israeli hobbyists - back when only PC to PC communication was available from programs like CUSeeMe. The first PC to Phone calls were made around 1998 and things were all set for a telephony revolution..... until the dot com crash that is. Since then VoIP has been sitting in the background, quietly maturing to a commercially viable state and has emerged as an exciting new alternative to traditional phone solutions. Visitors to the 2004 CeBIT will recall a few stands with VoIP offerings which ballooned at this years CeBIT to the point where you could hardly escape them on the solutions side of the exhibit.
We all want to save a buck or two on our ever increasing phone costs and, much to the displeasure of the traditional Telcoís, VoIP is ďthe next big thingĒ in cheap calls and itís here to stay. Cheap calls you say? Whatís the catch? Well thereís a wide range of responses from early adopters. Some say itís crystal clear while others complain of drop outs, jittery conversations and not enough saving compared to their traditional phone bills.
Engin claim you can run 2 lines on a 256K connection. While that may look right on paper (and is Ďpossibleí), itís not necessarily so clear cut in practice. The truth is, there are a number of factors that affect the quality of a VoIP call. There are a number of different codecs available, each with different compression capabilities. Most providers tend to prefer G729 as it has a low bandwidth requirement whilst still providing a good quality call. The quality of your broadband connection plays a big part in call quality. If youíre with an ISP that has high contention ratios (I can think of a few, who shall remain nameless) then your maximum attainable speed may well drop below the plan level you purchased and also below the requirements of the codec in use. That leads to choppy, jittery conversations that get very frustrating, very fast. This also goes for usage on your side of the net connection. If you have P2P running and youíre downloading a few Linux ISOís, utilizing the majority of your connection without any sort of Quality of Service compatible router, you canít expect any VoIP technology to work well. The trouble is, the target market would most likely have no idea that these factors affect call quality, which may leave some who are habitually surfing the net while chatting on their engin box feeling that the unit isnít living up to their expectations.
The Voice Box:
The engin voice box is actually a re-badged Sipura SPA-2000 Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA). These units allow standard telephones to act as IP telephony devices. The unit sells for $149. It has all the features youíve come to expect from your existing phone line, with a lot of others thrown in that would normally come at a price through a traditional carrier like Telstra. You can make use of :
V-Mail (Voicemail to Email)
Block Caller ID
3 way Calling
Block Last Call
Block Anonymous Call
Do Not Disturb
All these features sound pretty snazzy, however for a few pennies more you can have a series 2 model which retails for $229. This model claims improvements such as AnyWhere Connect, Switchback & Landline Ring through. Anywhere Connect allows you to call your engin box from a remote location and then use the engin to make a call as if you were actually using it. Switchback, possibly the most useful feature of this new unit from a safety viewpoint, allows the ATA to use your existing telephone line if the power goes out. Landline Ring through allows for your existing phone number to be piped through the ATA so that the single handset is able to answer calls from either your engin or existing number.
Monthly plan fees for engin voice box users start from $19.95 (which include $10 of either international or mobile calls), however there are cheaper plans available for those wanting to use a softphone only, or only make outgoing calls.
In The Box:
Having tried a number of soft phones and eventually purchasing an IP Phone to run my business line through, I was keen to see how well the engin unit would compare. Upon opening the box youíll find a manual staring back at you, and underneath will be the gear: the engin voice box, a cat5 patch cable and the transformer with Australian power adapter.
While the not so tech savvy will find the manual extremely helpful, anyone with an ounce of networking knowledge will skip to the back page for the number to ring to activate the ATA and proceed to plug everything in themselves.
With everything plugged in and switched on, a quick check on the routers arp table will show what IP address the unit has been assigned. Once itís all connected and youíre happy with the network setup, itís time to call engin to activate your account. You follow the typical 20 questions youíd expect when signing up to a service, however they also need to know what make and model router you are using so that they can guide you through correctly configuring it to allow the appropriate ports to be open. Once theyíve finished the signup process they get you to reset the engin box and check for a dial tone and youíre in business.
In situations like this, there arenít any benchmark programs that can be used to gauge call quality and itís a largely subjective process. Call quality was as good as a traditional telephone. While I have a 1500/256 DSL connection, I ramped up its utilization to various levels with a number of ftp transfers in both directions and the call quality never skipped a beat. On the other end of the line there is a slight perceived difference between the ATA and my Sipura 841 IP phone, which is most likely due to the 841ís higher quality microphone compared to the standard Telstra phone that was used. In all, itís safe to say that engins voice box is as good as most other VoIP products available and it certainly does the job providing the necessary network requirements are in place.
The main problem with engin's solution is that it relies upon an already matured home network. They require a multi-port router, assuming that most houses have 2 or 3 computers connected to the net. Unfortunately this isnít really the case just yet in Australia with most homes still only having 1 PC with a surprising amount of people still using dialup. Those who do have DSL or Cable often end up being supplied a DSL McModem that connects to their PC via a USB connection. This sort of circumstance sees the total cost of setting up the engin service increasing to include a multi-port router/modem combo, which often cost more than the engin unit itself. Not an ideal situation for those trying to save money. Engin would do well to offer an optional low cost multi-port router so as to lower this barrier of entry that many wanting to take up VoIP will experience.
While engin provides a turn key solution best suited to those looking for a no nonsense product that just works, you can enjoy the benefits without the rather high minimum monthly spend by purchasing your own IP Phone and selecting one of the growing number of VoIP providers. Others may choose an alternate route as they may only own a single port cable/dsl router. Grandstream have a basic unit available for $12 more than engin's ATA and has a 2nd network port which is bridged. This would allow you to plug, for example, your PC into it and still get net access while taking advantage of VoIP calls. Those who practice a cordless mantra can even find a number of wireless VoIP phones which connect to your 802.11x wireless access point / router.
While itís the simplest possible way to jump on the VoIP bandwagon, the mumís and dadís that itís targeted at, without techie contacts will end up spending far more than they bargained for, possibly doubling the time it will take to get a return on the investment. Those who like to tinker (which, letís face it, is the majority of OCAU members) will feel rather restricted in what can be done with the unit and will relegate it to the functional but boring pile. Would I buy one and sign up to engins service? Not really Ė I like the ability to tweak things too much. Would I recommend it to friends and family who prefer it when things just work? Definitely Ė I can set it up for them, and once setup, the ease of use & engins 1300 support number means I shouldnít get lots of extra support calls each week. With a 30 day risk free trial (call costs not refunded) it certainly doesnít hurt to give it a go.