capsule review

YMax MagicJack: Inexpensive Calling That Relies on a Computer

At a Glance
  • YMax MagicJack

    PCWorld Rating

    The MagicJack lives up to its name, offering solid, reliable phone service for peanuts.

The MagicJack service first arrived on the VoIP scene back in 2007, with an offer too tantalizing to ignore: unlimited local and long-distance calling for a mere $20 per year (after the first year, which was included with the $40 MagicJack hardware), plus free international calls to other MagicJack owners.

Too good to be true? If you've done any research, you've probably read some horror stories about spotty call quality and atrocious customer service. But that was then. Has MagicJack improved with age? Can it now take the place of a landline, or even of a Vonage? Based on my experiences, the answer is a definite..."your mileage may vary."

The Zippo lighter-size MagicJack plugs into a USB port, where it automatically installs its own software. Plug any corded or cordless phone into its RJ-11 jack (or connect a headset to your PC), and presto: You have a dial tone. It's that easy.

Completing the registration process takes only a few minutes, but it concludes with page after page of annoying upgrade come-ons. In the end, you'll have a new local number ready for dialing. When I signed up, MagicJack users couldn't keep their existing number, but the company says it will soon offer that option for $10. Though the service doesn't offer a multitude of calling features, it does cover the basics: voicemail, call waiting, caller ID, and free 411 (directory assistance) calls. Voicemail messages are accessible via dialing in, but you can also have the service deliver them automatically via e-mail as audio attachments. That's a nice perk--and one that costs extra with the Ooma Telo system.

MagicJack's embedded dashboard software maintains a call history and a contact list, both of which are available on the device wherever you plug it in. In fact, portability is one of MagicJack's best assets. For example, you can plug it into any computer anywhere, and as long as there's a broadband connection (even via a 3G modem), you'll have a dial tone.

The catch is that you have to leave a computer running 24/7, which is neither convenient nor energy-efficient. Still, you could always dig an old PC out of the closet and use it as a dedicated MagicJack box to replace your landline.

Call quality makes or breaks a device like this, and MagicJack performed quite well--most of the time. When it was plugged into a desktop wired to my router, incoming and outgoing calls sounded consistently loud and clear.When I plugged it into a netbook connected via 802.11g Wi-Fi, however, some calls were fine while others dropped. In one instance the phone rang, but when I picked up the receiver, the call went dead.

Need help with issues like these? Don't look for a support number to call--there isn't one. The only support option is online chat, assuming you can find it on YMax's hideous, infomercial-inspired Website. When I did, I was quickly connected to an online tech who provided helpful, courteous answers to my questions. Even so, the lack of a customer-service department reachable by phone gives me pause.

Ultimately, I found MagicJack to be a very reliable phone service, as long as I used it with an ethernet-connected PC. But reliable enough to replace a landline? I'd recommend testing it for yourself before you make that decision. If nothing else, it makes for a fine second line that the kids can use without tying up the home phone and racking up huge bills.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The MagicJack lives up to its name, offering solid, reliable phone service for peanuts.

    Pros

    • One of the lowest-cost home phone services on the planet
    • Highly portable; use it nearly anywhere you go

    Cons

    • Computer has to be left running 24/7
    • Customer service and technical support not available by phone
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