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Sunday, March 30, 2008

An occasional look at products the travel industry insists we need.

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WHAT: A phone jack for your computer that lets you plug in a standard phone and make low-cost calls.

AIMED AT: Travelers with laptops who want to make cheap calls from the road.

HOW MUCH: $20 for the jack, plus $20 a year for service.

BUT DOES IT WORK? Between pricey penalties for exceeding mobile phone minutes to absurd hotel telephone charges, calling from the road costs too much. Travelers with laptops and broadband can make Internet calls, but those pay-per-minute rates add up.

MagicJack changes the game with a flat-rate price so low it looks like a misprint: $20 per year -- not per month, per year -- for unlimited calls to the United States and Canada from anywhere in the world.

Getting started costs $40, which includes the first year of service and a small device that plugs into a USB port. The device has a telephone jack that lets you use a standard phone, including cordless ones (you also can opt to use a headphone).

Setup is simple. You don't need to insert a CD; just plug the small device into the USB port and the software loads automatically. We were making calls less than five minutes after plugging in the device. Voice quality was indistinguishable from a wired phone line.

We tested magicJack with a variety of Internet broadband connections and PCs. The quality did not suffer, and the device did not slow down other programs, even on an older, slower PC.

The phone service comes with a free local phone number, voice mail, call waiting, call forwarding, three-way calling and free (commercial-supported) directory assistance. International calls are extra, though competitively priced: Calls to France, for example, are 2 cents a minute (18 cents a minute for French mobile phones).

MagicJack compares favorably to Skype, which recently added flat-rate pricing to its per-minute pricing ($36 a year for unlimited calling to phones in the United States and Canada). Skype charges extra for such things as an incoming phone number and devices that let you plug in standard phones.

Cons: Although the device is about as small as a pack of gum, it's thick enough to block a second USB port on some laptops. And unlike more expensive Internet phones, magicJack cannot make calls while your PC is off. However, it can still take voice mail. -- Daniel Greenberg

MagicJack is available for Windows XP, Vista and Intel-based Macs from http://www.magicjacktv.com.


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