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March 1999


Microsoft Cordless Phone System
Microsoft Corporation
One Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA 98052-6399
Ph: 425-882-8080
Web site:

www.microsoft.com/phone/phone.htm

Price: $199.95.

Editors' Choice award logo

RATINGS (0-5)
Installation: 5
Documentation: 5
Features: 4.5
GUI: 5
Overall: A-


Is Microsoft serious when it comes to CTI? You bet! Just consider Microsoft's TAPI (Telephony Application Programming Interface). Many people expect that it will revolutionize the CTI industry. Of course, the latest version of TAPI, version 3.0, won't be out until Windows 2000 is released, unless Microsoft decides to ship TAPI 3.0 before Windows 2000.

Regardless of TAPI's near (or distant) future, Microsoft's work in telephony is already becoming apparent. A conspicuous example is the Microsoft Cordless Phone System, a product that utilizes many of the core components in the Microsoft operating system, including Microsoft's APIs. Some of the core components and APIs necessary for the advanced functionality of this product include a speech recognition engine, text-to-speech engine, some Internet Explorer 4.0 components, and (of course) some TAPI functions.

The Microsoft Cordless Phone System is a three-piece, 900-MHz analog phone that includes a cordless handset, base station, and charging cradle. This hardware is accompanied by Microsoft's Call Manager software, provided on CD-ROM. This software is designed to perform several functions, including managing speed dials, performing call management, retrieving messages, setting up mailboxes, and performing caller-ID lookups.

INSTALLATION
We had little difficulty installing the software or hardware. In fact, for the most part, we didn't need to refer to the user's manual when installing the Microsoft Cordless Phone System, although we did consult the Read Me First quick guide.

One problem, and a minor problem it was, occurred when we tried to synchronize the handset with the base station - essential for security. Basically, you have to place the handset on top of three metal prongs on top of the base station, which causes the base station and handset to exchange information. We had some difficulty at first getting the handset to sit properly on top of the base station, which meant the two devices did not recognize each other when we tried to go off-hook. After a bit of trial and error, we got the two devices to synch-up, which did require a steady hand. After figuring out how to synchronize the handset and base just once, with a bit of practice, we were able to synchronize over and over again quite easily.

We encountered another minor nuisance when we installed the software onto a Windows 98, Dell Pentium-266 machine. Every time we rebooted the PC, an Explorer folder would "pop up" when we first logged onto Windows. This folder was entitled "C:\Program Files\Microsoft" with a subfolder containing "Reference," which contained the "Microsoft BookShelf program."

We could not figure out why this folder kept coming up when we rebooted. There was nothing in this folder related to the Microsoft Phone software, other than the fact that the folder is a Microsoft folder for storing certain Microsoft applications. We checked the Startup group to see if a shortcut to this folder was placed there by the Microsoft Phone installation, and we also perused the Registry in our search for a solution, but to no avail.

The base station has a permanent wire attached to it, with a DB-9 serial connector at the other end, which attaches to one of the computer's serial ports. The computer we were using didn't have a free DB-9 port, since the mouse was connected to it. Fortunately, a DB-9 to DB-25 converter was also included, so we were able to connect the base station to the DB-25 serial port.

DOCUMENTATION
The manual for the Microsoft Cordless Phone System consisted of a Read Me First guide, as well as a User's guide. The Read Me First guide was quite helpful, showing us how to install the handset battery, synchronize the handset, install the Call Manager software, and connect the base station to the computer's serial port.

The User's Guide was excellent. It included several pictures of the base station and handset with accompanying arrows and captions explaining each button or feature. The screenshots, which depicted how each feature worked, were also very good. The User's Guide was well-organized and went to great lengths to explain each feature in easy-to-understand terms. Also, a handy troubleshooting section was included in this manual.

FEATURES

  • Flashing red light on handset alerts users to messages.
  • Phone in-use indicator.
  • Loudspeaker built into the cordless handset for announcing the caller, or for listening to the caller.
  • Allows users to screen/listen to incoming calls through computer speakers and/or the Microsoft Phone handset.
  • Text-to-speech for announcing caller-ID information (announcements may go through the computer speakers and/or the Microsoft Phone handset).
  • Answering machine (turns on after 12 rings).
  • Toll saver.
  • Maximum message duration (messages can be limited to a given number of minutes).
  • Male or female voice prompts.
  • Ability to respond to voice commands, which may initiate speed dials, message checks, or help requests.
  • Pronunciation editor for improving pronunciation for the text-to-speech engine.
  • Advanced dialing properties for choosing whether to dial local or long-distance, or whether to dial with or without the area code.
  • Multiple mailboxes.
  • Personalized messages, which may be played according to the caller-ID information received.

OPERATIONAL TESTING
User Interface
The user-friendly graphical interface for all the call management functions was broken down into five main sections, including Messages, Phone, Address Book, Mailbox Setup, and Call History - each of which was depicted by a large, colorful icon. Simply clicking on one of these large icons brought up the appropriate screen. From this interface, it was possible to add speed dials, listen to messages, and perform other functions.

The Call Manager GUI displays the Phone screen, which allows you to perform such functions as adding speed dials, making calls, and looking up contacts.

Sound Quality
We tested the sound quality of the cordless handset by making a normal phone call. The sound quality was excellent, which no doubt is partly due to the 900-MHz signaling.

Speed Dialing/Speech Rec
Next, we tried out the speech-recognition dialing. To perform this test, we first needed to add some speed-dials into the Microsoft Call Manager. After adding a few contacts into the speed-dial lists, which are broken down into four categories (Business, Personal, Family, and Misc), we initiated a speed dial from the cordless handset.

For our first test speed-dial, we pressed the Vcmd (Voice Command) button on the handset. After the ready tone, we said, "Call Rich Tehrani." We knew that if the speech recognition engine recognized what we said, and if the speed-dial name did in fact exist, we would hear a distinctive tone in the handset receiver, followed by a voice prompt. In our case, it said, "Placing a call to Rich Tehrani." Then, the handset automatically went off-hook and dialed the DTMF digits for Rich Tehrani's phone number.

Multiple Mailboxes
Using the Call Manager, you can setup multiple mailboxes, each with their own greetings. Thus, you can create separate mailboxes for each member of the family or for each member within a home business. Using caller-ID functionality, you can even set up personalized greetings, depending on who is calling. For example, "Hello Mr Burns. I mailed the accounting report to the office. You should receive it by tomorrow in time for the meeting."

We setup some test mailboxes, and recorded greetings for each mailbox. We made some test calls to each of the mailboxes and were able to leave and retrieve messages, both from the PC and also remotely. The GUI for retrieving messages from the PC within the Call Manager was straightforward and easy to use. We were able to switch between multiple mailboxes simply by clicking on a black triangle, and then selecting the appropriate mailbox.

Essentially, each mailbox can be assigned a DTMF key for leaving messages. Thus, you can have a main greeting which says "Press 1 to leave a message for Steve Smith, Press 2 to leave a message for Ross Cain, Press… etc.". Then the caller can press a DTMF key to leave their message in the appropriate mailbox.

Message Notification
Some useful message notification options are included with the Microsoft Cordless Phone System. For example, when you receive messages, you can have the Microsoft Call Manager software call you at a certain number, or to send a message to your pager. This is very useful for when you are on the road.

Call History
Call History, one of the most useful features of the Microsoft Cordless Phone System, allows you to keep track of both incoming and outbound calls. The date, time, and even duration of the call are all recorded in this interface. You can even initiate a call back to any call record with a known phone number.

The Handset
Notable features of the cordless handset include a strong non-retractable antenna, a message button for retrieving messages, a speed dial button, and a redial button. Other important buttons on the handset include a hold button, change channel button, flash hook button, a do not disturb button, a volume button, and the Vcmd (Voice Command) button. Also handy was the "line in use" feature, which lets you know when someone else is using the phone line, even if it's a separate phone.

The well-designed cordless phone handset includes a built-in loudspeaker - one of the best features of the Microsoft phone. The loudspeaker comes in very handy, since it announces caller-ID information using text-to-speech. The loudspeaker also can be used to listen to the caller speak, although unfortunately, when in loudspeaker mode, the handset microphone is muted so you cannot talk to the caller.

Another useful feature of the loudspeaker is that you can get a tutorial of how to use the Microsoft handset simply by pressing "0" when the phone is not in use. A recorded message (female voice) guides you through a series of prompts, to which you respond by hitting one of the DTMF keys. Depending on your selections, the female voice explains in detail how to use particular functions.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Voice messaging, speech-rec speed-dialing, and many other features of the Microsoft Cordless Phone System require that the Call Manager software be running and that the base station be connected to the PC at all times. If the PC is turned off, none of these advanced features work, although the phone will still act as a regular cordless phone. One reason the computer has to be on is that voice messages are stored on the PC's hard drive. Also, the speech-recognition is performed on the PC not on the phone handset or base station.

Here's the catch: While many people will love the features of this product, they may not care to leave their PCs up and running all the time. Some SOHO (small office/home office) users will find the Microsoft Cordless Phone a less expensive alternative to a full-fledged voice mail system, and won't mind leaving a dedicated PC up and running all the time. However, some people will object to leaving their personal PC on all the time, especially if they confine themselves to using the product's answering machine services, while regarding the product's other features (speech-rec, speed dial, etc.) as so many "cool" extras. The costs of keeping a PC up 24 hours a day means higher electricity bills, which may negate the benefits of the product's advanced features. Still, people who love high-tech gadgets will love the Microsoft Cordless Phone System.

What we would like to see in a future version is a base station with embedded Windows NT or Windows CE and flash memory for temporarily storing voice messages when the PC is turned off. When the PC is turned back on, the base station and the PC could "synch" up with each other. Also, with the Microsoft operating system "embedded" on the base station, speech recognition would still be possible with the PC turned off. Essentially, the speech recognition would instead execute on the embedded operating system. Of course, this will no doubt increase the cost of the Microsoft Cordless Phone, but TMC Labs believes there is a market for such a product.

We would like to find some way to avoid having the "Program Files\Microsoft" folder pop up. We did not try installing the Microsoft Phone software on multiple machines, so it may be specific to the one machine we used. However, the PC we used was fairly new, so we believe that this bug occurs on other machines.

One final suggestion is a two-line version of this product. With two lines, Microsoft can add one-number follow-me functionality, as well as follow-me scheduling rules. With two lines, any incoming call on one line can be conferenced or bridged with the second line, which "outdials" to find you anywhere you are by trying your mobile phone, home number, etc.

CONCLUSION
This product is great for the home user who uses their PC often. We suppose that the home user would really like being able to say the name of the person we wanted to call, and having the system dial that person automatically. No more fumbling through a Rolodex or doing a database query to find a phone number.

We enjoyed the speech recognition functionality ourselves. One night, when we were working late, a few of our engineers got hungry. We didn't recall the phone number of our favorite Chinese restaurant, but knew we had programmed it into the speed dials the day before. With just two words, we were connected to our favorite Chinese restaurant in seconds.

The ability to have multiple mailboxes, the ability to hear the caller-ID information announced over the loudspeaker, and the comprehensive call history make the Microsoft Cordless Phone System a valuable addition to the technically savvy home user or SOHO user.







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