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TMC Labs
March 2000



BrightArrow Technologies, LLC
2535 152nd Avenue NE Suite D  Redmond, WA 98052
P: 425-558-2100
Web site: brightarrow.com

Price: $249.00, includes a modem; $199.00, without modem.


Installation: 4
Documentation: 3.75
Features: 4.0
GUI: 3.75
Operational Testing: 2.5
Overall: C

PhoneAssistant by BrightArrow is a communication solution tool that gives users auto-attendant, voice message notification via e-mail, speech recognition dialing of contacts, and call screening with emergency breakthrough. Geared for the SOHO users, PhoneAssistant features a good price, intuitive GUI, and easy installation and administration. PhoneAssistant is easy to use and configure, and a non-technical user should have no problem installing and setting up the program. PhoneAssistant also allows users to import ACT! or Outlook contact files into the contact manager, and gives users advanced features. PhoneAssistant supports multiple phone lines, but requires a second modem.

PhoneAssistant does not require a high-end PC. Any PC running Windows 95/98 or NT, with a minimum of 166 MHz and 32 MB RAM will suffice. Our PC was a slightly higher end Windows 98 box, and the only extras we had were a 3Com NIC to connect to our 100 Base-T network, and a U.S. Robotics 56K Voice Faxmodem.

We reformatted our hard drive and performed a clean install of Windows 98, got the PC on the network, and then installed PhoneAssistant software. For our testing, we used the 2.0 beta build of PhoneAssistant. A typical CD-ROM install, it took only a couple of minutes to install and asked no tricky questions. After the install was complete, the configuration wizard launched. This allowed us to choose the User Mode, add users, register the program, and set up the address book and contacts.

The User Mode gave us the option for single or group mode. We chose single-user mode for our initial testing phase. Next we were prompted for our method of connecting to the Internet and receiving mail, giving us the options of a LAN, online service, dial-up connection to an ISP, or none. We opted for LAN. Then we had the option of adding a user or a department: we chose the former. The next series of options were our personal attributes, name, password, PIN, etc., and the choice of default voice prompt set (male or female).

We were then prompted to import our entire address book from Microsoft Outlook or ACT! or to add contacts one at a time. We opted to add our entire contact file from Outlook, a process that took a few minutes. (The program didn�t give us any indication whether or not the import was successful). Then we manually entered a few contacts one at a time. After that process finished, we got the wizards to test the headphones and microphone.

We chose a standard, high-end headset/microphone combination � the type favored by call center employees � and ran through the standard microphone/headphones test: checking volume, levels, etc. When we finished that part, we tested the voices in the system. We had the choice between male and female voices, but generally we were unable to distinguish which was which.

The phone that attached to the system was plugged into the phone jack of the modem. This was a nondescript �cheapie� phone, a $9.95 Radio Shack special. No special Internet gadget appliance (such as a combo speakers/microphone shaped like a standard phone) was needed in this case.

There is no hard copy documentation with PhoneAssistant. The documentation is solely electronic, which seems to be the latest trend. When this is the case, the best scenario is to have a complete set of documents on both the CD-ROM and installed on the hard drive during installation. That isn�t possible with PhoneAssistant � the documentation is installed on the hard drive directly and is not accessible from the CD-ROM.

There are three files installed on the PC when PhoneAssistant is installed: the standard Help file, the Read Me file, and the PhoneAssistant tutorial.

The Help File: The Help File is definitely the most useful of the three. It�s in standard Windows Help File format and contains a good amount of useful data. Each chapter contains several topics and plenty of helpful information. There are links to related topics, and a number of graphics (mostly screen shots) that help illustrate the issues.

The Read Me File: The Read Me file consists of system requirements, updates, and troubleshooting hints. It also gives information on any compatibility issues, and hints for running systems utilities and other tips. As with most other read me files, these aren�t a substitute for other documentation and are intended as an addendum, not for standalone use. There is also an Index tab, which is another helpful way to navigate to the topic you wish to read more about. The menu items are standard Windows choices (Hide, Back, Print, and Options).

The PhoneAssistant Tutorial: The PhoneAssistant Tutorial is an interesting concept. Also in Windows Help File format, it actually guides a user through the setup and helps explain different parts of the program. There are Web links too, but of course these require Internet access, and browser software.

This tutorial is well designed. The graphics are interactive � by clicking on any part of them, you are given a description of what the function does. However, the tutorial seems a little scattered. There doesn�t seem to be any continuity, and the user constantly has to click back and forth to continue with the program. However, this is a minor complaint. Overall, this type of documentation appears to be a good idea, and it received a few positive comments from other TMC Labs staff members.

PhoneAssistant gives users many features, providing good value for a relatively low price. As a device attached to a Windows PC, it gives the user the features of a good phone assistant: call screening, auto-attendant with multi-person use, and speech dialer. It also provides unified messaging functions, forwarding phone messages and faxes directly into your e-mail inbox, and as previously mentioned, it can import a contact list from ACT!, Outlook, or Outlook Express.

Retrieval of messages both locally and remotely is easy. There is a screen flash on the PC where there is a message, and calling in remotely uses speech recognition, avoiding having to remember codes or fumble with a cellular phone to check your messages while driving on the interstate.

The EasyFax module allows users to send and receive faxes on the same phone line. You can use any program that allows you to choose BrightArrow Fax as the printer (including Microsoft Office), and incoming faxes are received in the your e-mail inbox.

Other features include:

  • Speech dialer.
  • Caller ID support.
  • Incoming and outgoing call log.
  • Ability to dial numbers from call log entries.
  • Multiple telephone lines on a single PC (additional modem required).
  • Requires only a modem, not an additional card.
  • Option to use PhoneAssistant with both analog and digital lines.
  • Emergency breakthrough feature.
  • Customizable voice prompts.

PhoneAssistant initially used L&H�s latest release for their speech recognition, though the current version uses Microsoft�s Speech Application Programming Interface (SAPI) 4. This allows multiple applications to share speech resources and avoid the need for writing specialized application codes for a specific speech technology engine. (For additional information on SAPI, see www.microsoft.com/IIT/documentation/faq.htm)

The GUI for PhoneAssistant is simple and unobtrusive. Our first test was to dial some phone numbers we had imported from our Outlook contact file. Our list was already imported and we brought up the Contacts window by selecting the Contact List button. As mentioned earlier, we used a generic headset for our testing. We hooked up a standard phone to our modem, and started testing.

We selected a name, and clicked on Call Now to dial it. Unfortunately, this action didn�t initiate the call, but instead brought up a second window, which required us to manually select the name and then hit the Place Call button (or strike the Enter key on the keyboard), an unnecessary extra step.

After that our call did go through, but we were not able to use the keypad on the GUI to dial any additional digits, which was bad, because we might not be able to dial extensions or menu items once we reached the intended number. We were, however, able to use commas in the number to dial extensions.

When we tested the Speech Dialer, it worked intermittently. This feature dialed our contacts directly from our imported Contact file. We used the headset microphone and gave the command, �Call Jim Smith.� The prompt asked us if we wanted to call using business line one (which is where our contact�s phone number was listed) and we replied affirmatively. The voice came back with �I have one business phone for Jim Smith. Is this OK?� We had to respond before our request was honored.

Unfortunately, only about 50 percent of the requests were recognized, and out of those, 50 percent resulted in an outbound phone call. This is a bit disappointing, but when it did work, the Speech Dialer worked well.

Next we tested incoming calls. We tested the voice mail and auto-attendant functions. First we edited our availability to determine when we wanted to accept incoming calls. The screening window let us schedule what times we wished to receive inbound calls, and also at which level (top priority, important, normal, and nuisance) we chose to accept the calls. This only worked with recognized numbers, as it matched them against the numbers in our contact list. In the Call Screen Levels window we were also able to remove levels, change the order of the names, and add custom levels.

For our hold music, we had several choices: Big City Rock (which sounds like the incidental music in the film Risky Business), Soothing Piano, and String Orchestra (actually �Spring� in Vivalidi�s Four Seasons). All were non-offensive, if not actually pleasant, except for the file named �Hoe Down,� which sounded like a truly bad night at the Grand Ol� Opry.

We connected successfully 100 percent of the time when we dialed in. Caller ID worked well, and the phone call lost no quality, despite going through the modem. One issue we had was that the messages we left on PhoneAssistant were not all retrievable. When we went into our mailbox and selected the message we wanted to hear, we heard the robotic voice prompts say �Is last name wave file is greater than,� and there was no way to listen to the message left by the caller. Not what you want to hear when you�re expecting an important call!

We had a choice of being notified via e-mail of any messages that arrived. Activating this feature requires only standard data entry, and we filled out the required fields and tested it. Obviously, this requires that the administrator to know a little about SMTP, and how to configure a server to understand this. Once we got the IP address properly entered, the calls were forwarded to e-mail.

Finally, we tested the faxing software. We have tested many fax programs, both good and bad, and we certainly know the difference. The faxing capabilities of the PhoneAssistant were passable, if not entirely adequate, and performed in a workman-like fashion. Both incoming and outgoing faxes functioned, and to be fair, this isn�t a major selling part of the program.

Before we delve into the list of Room for Improvement items, we must remember that we are testing a beta version of the software. There are bound to be issues that will be corrected by the time the product hits the streets. We�ve reviewed enough beta versions of software to know which items are bugs that will be corrected in the real release, and what issues are due to bad engineering.

Our first major issue was making a call manually, by using the mouse on the list of contacts. Clicking on a contact and hitting the �Call Now� button isn�t enough to make the call go through. Hitting that button brings up a Manual Call window, listing the person (as one option in a drop-down menu) and their phone number below. You then have to use the mouse to highlight that number and click on the �Place Call� button. These two extra steps are unnecessary and should be improved upon.

Staying within the contact arena, we realized the Contact List window isn�t scalable. It is one size fits all, and there is no way to change it. The columns that list the records are scalable, as is standard in Windows, but widening one column makes another smaller. Also the sorting feature doesn�t have any indication of which column is the sorted one, and no triangle that tells you if it�s sorted in an ascending or descending manner. Also there is no �find� command, which is a hassle if you have a very large number of contacts.

Our last complaint with the contacts is that PhoneAssistant�s contact list isn�t an independent file but leeches off the Outlook Contact file. So if you delete a contact from PhoneAssistant, it automatically deletes it from the Outlook Contacts (unless Outlook is closed, in which case it gives you an error).

Other than these issues, the rest of the contact works well, once the dreaded beta version bugs are hammered out.

Also, we have a difficult time dealing with auto-attendants that use text-to-speech voices and not human voices. This practice gives the impression of a small company on a shoestring budget trying to impress callers with a �sophisticated� phone system. A system that uses a real human voice (hopefully a customized one) impresses the customer much more than using text-to-speech prompts, and poor quality ones at that.

Finally, PhoneAssistant�s GUI prompted comments by other labs staff, who noted it was ugly and somewhat dull. Generally, we don�t make comments on the aesthetics of the GUI, but we did hear such comments several times during the testing phase.

PhoneAssistant is a good concept with several good integrated features. Overall, some work is needed to knock out the bugs and issues found in this beta version. The features were good when they worked, but they were frustrating enough (and required a few reboots) when they didn�t work. One of the selling points of BrightArrow�s PhoneAssistant is the price. For the features included here, it is an attractive price when compared to other programs with similar functions. However, there usually is a catch when you buy the least expensive product. This is one example of getting exactly what you pay for.

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