When many people are abandoning home phone lines for cellphones altogether, one company is trying to stem the tide by providing what they call “the smartphone for your home.”
Jim Gustke, vice-president of marketing for Ooma, said his company understands that people’s expectations for phones have changed over time.
“We really want to merge the mobile phone experience with the home phone experience,” he said.
Ooma is a voice over Internet Protocol provider which entered the Canadian market in November 2011 with its Ooma Telo. The Telo is a mini-Linux computer that hooks up to your broadband connection. You can connect it through your computer, directly to the modem or router or wirelessly via an adapter. Then you just hook your phone into the back with the standard RJ11 phone jack.
Ooma HD2 Handset
Or you can buy the accompanying cordless phone, the Ooma HD2 Handset. Launching Nov. 1, this product includes cellphone-like features not found in a standard landline. Running on rechargeable double AA batteries, the handset features a two-inch colour display, one-touch voicemail access, hands-free calling through both a speakerphone and headset jack, and can even double as an intercom if you purchase two or more.
Gustke explained you manage your account online through a My Ooma portal. From there, you can import contacts from all the places a smartphone does: Google, Facebook, Outlook and so on.
“Then when you receive a call from someone on your contact list, “ he said, “the profile picture will download to the Ooma Telo and stream over the DECT radio signal and present picture caller ID on the handset.”
Eventually, he said, you’d be able to add customized ringtones (even mp3s) to individual callers or groups of callers (e.g. family or friends). It will come in a firmware update sometime next year.
Basic service vs. Premier service
The Basic service, which gives you free calls anywhere in Canada, works out to about four dollars a month. This is actually just the monthly taxes and fees (including the 911 emergency service) which come with having a phone line. (It supposedly varies slightly from place to place, but all the random postal codes I looked up on Ooma’s tax calculator gave me $3.98.)
With it, you get voicemail (which you can check on the device, from a phone or online through the My Ooma portal), caller ID and call waiting.
But the Premier service plan, for $9.99 a month (plus applicable taxes and fees), provides free calls in both Canada and the U.S. as well as over 25 premium features. (Check out the full comparison here.)
Instant second line
Some of these premium features the HD2 Handset can take specific advantage of. For example, Gustke pointed out, the plan comes with an “instant second line” where you’ll be able to make or take a call while somebody’s already on the phone.
“So someone’s talking on the phone,” Gustke explained, “not only will they hear the call waiting signal through the earset, the other phones will ring so someone else can answer it.”
In addition to the handset, you can access the instant second line via the Ooma Linx. Also available Nov. 1, it’s, essentially, a wireless phone jack.
“It plugs into any AC receptacle and links to the Telo wirelessly using the same DECT protocol as the handset uses,” Dennis Peng, Ooma’s vice-president of product management, said. “But instead of having the phone interface, it just has the RJ11 and you can plug in any phone, fax machine… anything that uses a phone jack you can connect it here and it will be linked to your Ooma system.”
Multiple phone numbers
And you can also set up additional phone numbers and voicemails for the specific handsets or Linxes, whether it be a business line, or roommates who want separate phone lines, or you live alone and you’re lonely so you just feel like calling yourself.
The Ooma Telo only has one phone jack so short of using a splitter you can only plug in one phone directly. But as both the HD2 Handset and Linx connect wirelessly, the Telo can take up to four different phone connections, meaning you can have four completely separate phone lines if you want.
In addition, using a Bluetooth adapter, you can also pair up to seven different cellphones to the device and so that when they ring, the name of the cellphone that’s paired will appear on the screen so you’ll know whose mobile phone received the call. Peng added, in the future, you’ll be able to add the customized ringtones to differentiate the devices, just as they plan to do with ringtones for contacts.
But this is all just bells and whistles. Ultimately, as with any landline, it comes down to call quality and integrity. Admittedly, I have yet a chance to try out the HD2 Handset or the Telo other than being given a short demonstration. But Ooma was listed by Consumer Reports magazine at the best home phone service in the U.S. for the past two years. This means it didn’t just beat other VoIP providers but the cable and old-school phone companies as well.
Gustke said Ooma uses what they call “pure voice technology” to ensure the best sound quality.
“One of the primary ingredients of pure voice is what we call ‘adaptive redundancy’ and it can detect when the network starts to get congested and packets are being lost over the Internet,” Gustke said. “And what we do is we automatically send more information with each of the packets so that it covers a longer span of voice. So if one of those packets gets lost along the way, it can fill in the voice quality so that you’re always ensure a great sounding phone call.”
In other words, by sending more data, it cuts down on the chance the voice will drop out or become distorted in some other way.
“And we’ve tested the pure voice under different network conditions and we’ve seen that with even up to about 40% packet loss, we can still deliver a great-sounding phone call,” he added. “And at that rate, over VOIP services just completely fall apart.”
Ooma vs. Vonage
Peng played me some samples. I listened to the same phone call on both Ooma and Vonage on a network with 35% packet loss.
The Vonage call sounded almost incomprehensible with its breakups and distortions. Now to be fair, Vonage is generally considered to be one of the worst VoIP providers around. But even without the comparison, Ooma’s call was reasonably clean and clear.
“You can hear a little bit of voice artifact, but a lot of it is being covered up by the adaptive redundancy,” Peng explained.
But, he added, those were both just narrow-band calls.
Ooma now supports HD voice which doubles the frequency range making the voice sound more natural, Peng said.
“Sounds like an actual person talking to you, right?” he commented, after playing another clip.
Hard to say, considering the voice recording was of a computerized female voice, thanking me for my Ooma purchase, but it did sound fuller than the previous calls.
“We’re all kind of used to hearing (the narrow-band version) so we think of that as a typical telephone call,” Peng said. “But there’s just so much information missing. That’s why when you’re spelling out something over the phone, you have to say ‘D as in Dennis’ otherwise it might sound like ‘B’ or ‘P’ because all that frequency information is missing. But with HD, it becomes much easier to understand.”
True enough. Now if only I had someone to call…
The Ooma Telo has a suggested retail price of $179 (though Costco and London Drugs currently offer it for 149.99), the HD2 Handset has a suggested retail price $59.99 and the Linx has a suggested retail price of $49.99. For more retailers, check out Ooma’s site.