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January 1999

FoneFriend Systems, Inc.
75 S. Manheim Blvd., MSB 7
New Paltz, NY 12561
Ph.: 914-256-0470
Fx.: 914-256-0394
E-mail: [email protected]
Web: www.fonefriend.com

Price: $199 each; $29 shipping; $19/month.
Options: $16/month limited Internet access; $10/month encryption.

Installation: 4
Documentation: 4
Features: 4.5
Overall: A-

FoneFriend is an Internet telephony gateway appliance designed to save money for users who call certain numbers very often. Like competitors InnoMedia and Aplio, FoneFriend plugs in like an answering machine and does not attach to a PC. There are only three cords, which go to the wall jack, an external telephone, and AC power. Unless you use FoneFriend very often, it will cost more than its competitors. But to our ears, FoneFriend tends to have noticeably less latency, and provides faster connections, plus optional free factory configuration, optional encryption, and other unique features. Soon, FoneFriend will offer call waiting and H.323 compatibility.

The method of entering Internet Service Provider (ISP) data is a consistent aspect in reviewing telephony appliances. Almost any ISP can be used, with the notable exception of America Online. The data required includes an ISP access number, primary and secondary DNS entries, POP and SMTP server names, user names, and passwords. The entry method is simple: Using the telephone keypad, users enter every character by pressing corresponding key strokes listed on a chart. There are 89 choices in all, including the full alphanumeric content in upper and lower case, plus special characters like period, at, pound, and ampersand. Once you get used to it, this method is effective and fast, and FoneFriend prompts let you "break-in" to speed things up even more. The only thing we disliked about this method is that there is no backspace option — to fix typos, you have to redo the whole entry. If this process sounds overwhelming to the average user (though it shouldn’t be), there is another way: call the FoneFriend company from the telephone that your unit is attached to, provide them with your ISP data, and they’ll happily program your unit remotely. Regardless of the method you choose, be sure to press "#5" when you’re done, which runs a self-test and returns a success message or an error code. The codes are documented in the user’s manual — the culprit is usually a mistyped ISP entry.

With the user’s manual, the wealth of information available on FoneFriend’s Web site, and the friendly technical support staff, it’s not hard to find the answers to your questions. The only thing missing from the user’s manual is a good sample configuration, because the explanations for the keypad codes are clear but not necessarily intuitive. A first-time user will need some time to figure out the codes, however, we liked that the error messages were documented. We also liked the tips and troubleshooting section, as well as the quick-start guide. And we liked that the manual — at least in our beta edition — was a "no-frills" variety. For a product so simple, why pay extra for a glossy bound publication when a simple paper version suffices? Even if you lose the owner’s manual, the entire document is posted at the FoneFriend Web site.

When the concept of voice over IP (VoIP) appliances was born, the main "feature" was free long-distance. But novelty quickly yielded to the reality of poor audio quality and terrible delays in packet transmission and regrouping, leading developers to emphasize enhanced services as much as the VoIP concept itself. Toward that end, FoneFriend offers a virtual messaging service, dynamic double packeting when packet loss exceeds 4 percent, and an "upgrade" LED indicator on the unit that activates when the FoneFriend server has a new software version available. Like the automatic configuration option, users only need to press a pound/number combination on their telephone’s keypad to initiate the automatic software upgrade.

Other features include free technical support, a three-year warranty, a reconnect feature, optional access to live broadcasts of radio stations, and the ability to leave a voice message through e-mail if the called party doesn’t answer. Currently, these voice messages use a proprietary file format, but the manufacturer soon plans to convert these files to the popular .WAV format.

After plugging in an analog phone line, telephone, and AC power adapter to each FoneFriend unit, the device performs a minute-long self-test. We programmed both units using two different ISPs, and the process went relatively fast since we’ve tested the competition, although one unit had to be reprogrammed eventually because we entered an invalid DNS address. But something else caught our attention — after we reprogrammed that unit, our offices suffered a power outage. An hour later, with the power back on, we tried the units again and noticed that after the self-test concluded, each unit’s upgrade LED was on. Our units were only a month old, and already there was an upgrade available … a perfect opportunity to test the auto-upgrade feature. (Of course, users do not have to perform an upgrade to keep using the device, but if all you have to do is press pound-seven and wait ten minutes, there’s no good reason not to.) Pressing pound-seven makes the unit dial into a FoneFriend server, where it downloads and installs the new software without any human interaction, providing a voice message at 10 percent increments throughout the upgrade.

The upgrade was done in about ten minutes, and we attempted another test. Finally, we were able to make a phone-to-phone call. Even though both phones were in our laboratory, one of our ISPs was local and one was national, and while we could not track the packets’ routes, they traveled at least hundreds of miles and several states from our office to complete the circuit. We also found that calls to a user at the FoneFriend office in Washington, D.C. had the same amount of latency and the same speech quality as our "local" call did. That user also spoke to us while the units were in double-packeting mode, which actually made the sound quality a bit better even though the latency and packet loss were technically worse at the time.

FoneFriend’s overall voice quality did seem to out-perform its two main competitors, but we can’t say for sure until we are able to test exact latency and speech scores using ITU-provided measurements. Call performance aside, FoneFriend definitely had faster connection times than its competitors, but we don’t like the pricing scheme, since users must make a large number of calls to provide a faster return on investment than the competition. We also strongly feel that the installation part of the user’s manual needs a detailed start-to-finish configuration example. Finally, we think that having some kind of backspace feature for the ISP configuration is vital — setup and pricing are the only real factors that distinguish the players in this market, and of the two, setup is probably the biggest factor of all.

Overall, testing the FoneFriend Internet telephony appliance was a positive experience. We remain leery about the pricing plan, and we hope to see improvements to the documentation. We also hope to see the H.323-compatible version released soon.

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