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Product Reviews
May 2000



Net2Phone, Inc.
171 Main St., 2nd Fl.
Hackensack, NJ, 07601
Ph: 800-438-8879
Fx: 201-692-3361
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.net2phone.com

Price: $2,499

Editor's Choice Award

Installation: 5
Documentation: 2.5
Features: 4.5
GUIs: 4.5
Operational Testing: 5
Overall: A-

You may have noticed that we rarely review simple analog IP gateways anymore; they all tend to be the same lately. However, Net2Phone's new Multi-Max does something significantly different than the others, and an equally significant feature upgrade is planned for later this year. Here's the beef: Unlike most small gateway systems where the customer has to supply the IP network, the Multi-Max works by using your corporate account on Net2Phone's existing international network. Later this year, an upgraded version will include PBX functionality in the same box, making it the industry's first IP-PBX -- or voice/data switch, or "softswitch," or whatever you prefer -- that's specifically designed for small companies.

The first thing you do with the device is remove its objectionable plastic case, which seems better suited to a futuristic SOHO voice-mail system or a household doorbell unit on steroids. Inside, we found an Ethernet port, eight analog telephone ports, an AC power outlet, and an RS-232 serial port. Two models are available, with either four or six ports for PBX connectivity; the remaining ports are for connecting analog extensions like a fax machine or administrator's phone.

We decided to test the product in a lowest-common-denominator fashion. To do so, we connected just one analog telephone extension, and we attached the device via Ethernet directly to a network hub and an external T1 line, which meant that the whole setup was outside the bounds of our corporate firewall. (In the real world, you'd carefully place the Multi-Max behind a hole in the firewall.)

After all is plugged in and turned on, there is a brief POST sequence, which is finished when the unit's three system LEDs stop blinking. The actual system configuration has two parts. The main task of the first part is setting the unit's IP address, which is done by connecting with terminal emulation software to the serial port. We used Windows HyperTerminal, and the task took just a few minutes. For the second part, access to the Multi-Max is made by using the included management software on any Windows computer on your network. The necessary settings here include the system IP address and subnet mask, which are already set if you've used the serial configuration method; entering your Internet gateway address; entering two server addresses, which are supplied to you by Net2Phone; and entering your office's Internet bandwidth and number of outside lines. Next, there are settings that determine the unit's quality of service (QoS) and maximum available simultaneous connections; the minimum and maximum jitter buffer settings for voice and fax; and your company's Net2Phone account number and password. When all of this is done, installers choose the option to write the data to the unit, and a system reboot is required. A final option for installers is whether to wall-mount the unit or to leave it on a shelf or desk; wall-mounting hardware and directions are included if you choose that option.

Although this setup process worked fine in our laboratory, things are more complicated in real-world scenarios. One of the product's "fine print" issues is that it can only dial outbound; it cannot terminate inbound calls. But, that doesn't limit its usefulness: You might configure your company's PBX to require prefixing PSTN calls with one telephone button and IP telephony calls with another; you could set your PBX to make only long-distance calls using the Multi-Max; perhaps you'd set a routing table so your remote workers or traveling employees can dial into the PBX and out through the Multi-Max. Although this kind of functionality is largely dependent on your existing equipment, as far as the Multi-Max device knows, it's all just outbound calling -- even if the product leaves your CTO a bit disappointed, your CFO will love it.

The instruction manual for this product is just 28 pages, and it's clearly lacking. A decent attempt is made to explain the product's usability with a few diagrams and overview text, but we'd like to see more detail and more clearly written copy. The installation section is average -- the product is so easy to install that it wouldn't really matter, except that more attention should be given to integrating with existing phone systems. The configuration section is the manual's jewel; we like the explanations of what the various settings do and how they affect performance. The operation section gets very brief treatment, which we dislike. Four useful appendices bring up the rear. Still, the manual's shortcomings are overshadowed by the absence of any online help in the product; the GUI's "help" button only provides the system version and typical "about" information. Despite this mediocre documentation, we had the product out of the box and fully functional in the three hours between returning from a late lunch and ditching work early for company softball practice, which is rare for IP telephony gear.

This section of our product reviews normally produces a thousand words of insight, which we hope helps you make a buying decision. But the Multi-Max's feature set is a unique hodgepodge, and our operational testing impressed even some TMC employees who have nothing to do with the technical side of things. The product is not feature-rich, but the features that are here work very well. Their simplicity will impress any IT professional, and like the "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!" product, the quality of Net2Phone's Internet telephony calls continually wows us.

As we started to mention in the installation section, there is a simple management GUI. You can set things like the maximum bandwidth, with a minimum bandwidth of 16 Kbps per line. The high and low jitter buffer depths for both voice and fax data can be set in 15 ms increments, and the account option shows refreshed balance information after every call. From the monitoring menu, system and call logs can be generated with a debugging mode, and the unit can be reset, upgraded, and reconfigured to the system default options.

Making a telephone call, once you're out of your PBX and onto a Multi-Max line, involves only entering the destination number followed by a # sign. The actual call quality is exceptional -- our own tests and the feedback we've heard from anyone who has ever made a call using Net2Phone's network support this. The quality is so good, in fact, that system administrators have no need to worry about which voice codecs to use, a definite first for a CPE gateway.

Certain "room for improvement" items grabbed our attention without much effort. One is the documentation and lack of online help, but no further discussion of this is needed beyond what's mentioned above. Another is the way billing information is provided: It's nice that your account balance is refreshed after each call, but since more detailed information is available at Net2Phone.com, it would be a smart idea to include a hotlink from right inside the GUI, with an alarm when your account is low. Imagine if an end user tried to make a phone call and received an account error message? We'd also like to see the inclusion of an SDK, so administrators can add their own features or use a customized version of Net2Phone's PC-to-phone software.

This has been one of the shortest product reviews we've ever written for a business-class IP gateway. For using Net2Phone's existing IP network, the Multi-Max redefines what it means to be an enterprise edge device. The product has some flaws, but we're thrilled with its ease of installation and administration. Further, we're ecstatic about the coming PBXified version. If your small- or medium-sized office has hefty long-distance needs for voice or fax and you don't want to invest in the staff or equipment upgrades for building your own IP telephony solution, then this product is as close to a perfect solution as you'll find. For its innovation, we honor it with our Editors' Choice Award.

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