Web & communication software

Ooma Helps You Save on Your Phone Bills

In an economy this bad, everyone wants to save a buck. If you're trying to save on your phone bill, and are willing to put up with less-than-stellar voice quality and basic calling features, you may want to give Ooma a try. Plug this nifty device into your router, cable or DSL modem, connect a landline telephone to it, and phone bills can become a thing of the past.

Ooma uses your broadband Internet service to let you make phone calls. Unlike Vonage, though, you won't have to pay a monthly fee for its use, unless you want to use its premium services (more on that later). Instead, you'll be able to make unlimited free phone calls throughout the U.S., and calls at reduced cost overseas.

How much will you save? That depends on your current phone bill. Ooma has a list price of US$249.99, although you should be able to find it for less at a retail store or online. (As I write this review, it's available from Amazon for $199.99.) So calculate your annual phone fee, and compare it to Ooma's price; you should get a good estimate.

Installation is a snap

Because of the vast number of phone options in homes, you might expect Ooma's setup to be at best problematic. Do you have a DSL or a cable modem? A separate router? Do you want to use the device in concert with an existing phone line and number, or not use your wall jack at all? No matter what your current setup is, Ooma has done an excellent job in creating a simple installation routine.

The Ooma device itself is a compact, unobtrusive, sleek-looking 7.5-by-5.5-in. device with six buttons for doing things such as retrieving, managing and deleting voice mail. I opted to use it in addition to my landline, instead of as a replacement. When you choose this option, you get a free phone number from Ooma, with a good chance that you'll get a number in your area code. If you want to replace your landline but keep your existing phone number, you'll have to pay a one-time fee of $39.99.

To install it, first visit the Ooma Web site and fill in basic information, such as whether you need a new phone number, and so on. After that, connect the device itself. I connected it to my cable modem and my home router, and then connected my phone. (If you're using it in concert with your existing landline, you'll also have to plug that line into it.) At first the Ooma didn't work, but after restarting my cable modem and home router, a blue light went on, indicating that the device was working.

What if you want more than one telephone to be able to make calls with Ooma? Here's where things get tricky. Ooma comes with a "Scout," a small device that can plug into a landline, and into which you then plug your other phone. You'll have to buy a separate Scout for each phone (except for the first one) at a list price of $60.99 each -- which will certainly cut down on your savings.

And there's a catch: You can't use the Scout if you're using Ooma in addition to your landline and aren't plugging Ooma into a wall jack. That's because the Scout communicates with the main Ooma hardware via the phone wiring in your house. So if you don't plug the main Ooma device into your home phone wiring, you're out of luck -- you can only use it with one telephone. However, if you use Ooma in concert with your home phone wiring, you can use as many phones as you want, as long as you've got a phone jack for each, and are willing to buy a Scout for each.

Easy but fuzzy

Once you've got Ooma set up, your phone works as it normally does. Take your phone off the hook and you hear several small musical notes and a dial tone. Dial and talk as you would normally; pick up calls as you would normally.

As soon as I started talking, though, I noticed a difference. While the voice quality varied, it was generally fuzzy, with a hollow or tinny sound at times. I could still clearly hear the call, and so could the person on the other end, but the quality simply wasn't as good as a normal landline.

The Ooma offers many features you'd expect from a VoIP, including voice mail and the ability to check the voice mail using a Web account, and the ability to make changes to your preferences. In addition, you also get Caller ID, call-waiting and a nifty feature that will send you an e-mail or text alert when you have voice mail.

Overall, this is somewhat basic compared to Vonage, which offers features such as three-way calling, and the ability to forward calls to other lines. Ooma Premier, which costs $12.99 a month, adds three-way conferencing, a second line, voice mail forwarding and several other features.

Ooma can save you money not just on calls in the U.S., but overseas as well. Calls to landlines in the U.K., for example, run from $0.019 to $0.028 per minute, roughly comparable to Skype. To make overseas calls, you'll have to prepay in increments of $10, $25, $50 or $100.

Interestingly enough, even though the device is on your home network, you may not find it on your network map. It didn't show up on my Windows Vista Network Map, for example. And when I connected to my home router to look at all devices on the network, it didn't show up there, either.

Despite that, though, you can directly connect to the Ooma and fiddle around with its internal settings using a browser from your home network. If you're really in a tweaking mood, you can change a variety of network settings, such as the device's IP address and network mask, in addition to playing around with its quality of service (QoS) settings. When I tinkered with the QoS, I didn't notice any changes, but your mileage may vary.

The bottom line

Should you replace your existing phone service with Ooma? You can certainly save money -- for example, if you pay $60 a month for your phone service, including long-distance calls, the basic Ooma service will pay for itself in four months. From that point on, it's all savings.

Keep in mind, though, that you'll be giving up some voice quality. (According to the company, Ooma is releasing a new model this summer, called Telo, that will include a cordless handset featuring DECT 6.0 technology and so may address some of these issues.) In addition, if you need several Scouts, or are willing to pay a monthly fee of $12.99 for features such as three-way calling, the savings aren't nearly as great.

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