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August 1999

Ezfone Internet Phone Adapter

ACS Innovations
3171 Jay St.
Santa Clara, CA 95054-3308
Ph: 408-566-0900
Fx: 408-566-0909
Web: www.ezfone.com

Price: $149 single pack; $249 twin pack

Installation: 4.0
Documentation: 4.5
Features: 4.0
Operational Testing: 3.25
GUI: 3.75
Overall: B-

Ezfone Internet Phone Adapter by ACS is a hardware/software solution designed to make phone calls over IP and the public Internet. With the ability to minimize charges by keeping calls local, Ezfone can also be used on IP networks for voice and data communications without having to establish a separate network for voice and data. Ezfone is H.323 compliant, and works with Microsoft NetMeeting. The Ezfone kit comes complete with everything needed to install and work on a Windows 95 or 98 PC, with the exception of a touch-tone telephone.

We installed Ezfone on two PCs running Windows 98. Both had modems previously installed, and we installed a sound card on one of the computers to test NetMeeting, to confirm Ezfone was H.323 compliant. We also configured the dial-up networking to dial our ISP, and had two working phone lines (one for each computer), and a telephone connected to each computer. We tested both ISP dial-ups to ensure they worked before installing the Ezfone hardware and software.

Installing the Ezfone adapter was not a problem, as it was a typical ISA card. We rebooted the PCs, and were able to load the drivers from the Ezfone CD. This was a seamless install, and we rebooted again and checked to make sure the appropriate icons were present in the device manager tab of the system properties window. We then installed the application from the CD. Again, this was a simple install, and we went with the defaults we were given. After installation was successful, we rebooted and had to configure specific preferences, including whether we were using a phone line or a LAN, adjusting the sound levels, and entering our personal details (name, phone number, e-mail address, etc.)

After setting up the software, we physically configured the hardware. We plugged the live phone line into the modem, linked the modem and the Ezfone card with RJ-11 cables, and plugged the telephones into the cards. The schematics for the wiring are covered in both the user’s guide and in the online help, and were very clear and helpful.

There are two sources of documentation for Ezfone: The hard copy User Manual, and the help files on the PC. The help files are in Web convention and not Windows convention, making them much easier to read and more aesthetically pleasing. Both contain screenshots, the diagrams on how to configure the cards and wiring, and are simple to follow. Virtually all of the illustrations are screenshots, illustrations of the cards and wiring schemes, or ISA installation diagrams.

The online help files are easy to navigate, and have an index that is accessible from any document within help. The settings window has a particularly advanced function: Selecting the tabs in the document actually takes you to a page that explains that function. All the links work well, and finding any section of the document is very easy. Overall, the online help feature is far above average, and well put together.

Ezfone is feature-rich, with above-average capabilities for the price. The features are remarkably advanced for a product in this category. Many of the functions found in Ezfone are not available in any similar type units, and only in products costing thousands of dollars more. The ability to use standard analog telephones adds to the value and functionality of Ezfone, as does the easier-than-average installation and configuration.

A gateway feature allows your Efone to talk to any other H.323 device or software connected to the Internet. A new feature is that the gateway IP will be changed to the name of the gatekeeper, which is far more intuitive to anybody who is familiar with NetMeeting. A further function is the ability to use “Ezfone as gateway,” which allows users to call into their Ezfone computer so they can make a long-distance call at local rates. An example of this would be a user in California could call New York over the Internet, using a local ISP number in California. Once the IP link was established between the two, the caller could use the IP connection to call anywhere else, with the only expense being the charge for the call to the ISP in California (if any). However, this requires the Ezfone as gateway to have two phone lines connected, or one phone line and a broadband connection to the Internet instead of a second connection to an ISP.

Ezfone has the ability to accept calls either manually or automatically, by checking a box in the preferences. Checking this box will instruct Ezfone to give a “beep” warning every time an incoming call arrives. If the box is left unchecked, the user will not be able to answer incoming automatic Internet call requests. However, letting the phone ring fifteen times automatically overrides this feature. There is also a “Follow Me” feature, which automatically forwards incoming calls to a number that is programmed in the software. Definitely an advanced feature, Follow Me is easy to change and configure. It’s located in the Follow Me tab in the Ezfone settings window, which allows the storage of a phone number that any incoming calls can be forwarded to.

A remote access feature allows you to call in to your Ezfone to make calls remotely. This gives the user the ability to make long-distance and international calls from almost anywhere. To take full advantage of remote access, a second phone line or ISDN line should be installed. An option for a password is provided to prevent unauthorized users from accessing the Ezfone PC remotely.

Ezfone is compatible with Microsoft’s NetMeeting, and also runs voice activity detection (VAD), which detects pauses in speech to conserve bandwidth. In addition, EZfone eliminates poor voice quality commonly found in other Internet telephony products by deploying a dedicated 40 MIPS digital signal processor. Ezfone works behind firewalls, but will not work with a proxy server.

The GUI, a new feature in version 1.3, is very helpful. A window that has a telephone interface comes up when the program is launched. There are several important functions on the GUI, including a connection status indicator, a mute button, settings and help menus, and a phonebook, which stores frequently called numbers. Ezfone can also be used in a speakerphone function, which requires a pair of external speakers and a microphone (which is included in the package). A headset can also be used in place of the speaker and microphone set. The option to enable/disable remote access is on the desktop, which avoids having to open the setting windows to select this option.

Another cost-saving advantage of using Ezfone is that the minimum system requirements aren’t high-end: A 486 or higher PC running Windows 95 or 98. This is also a plus, as an older PC can be used for running Ezfone. A new computer doesn’t necessarily have to be bought specifically for the Ezfone, and it also saves the cost of buying an NT license.

An additional option not included is the Ezfone Internet Phone Enhancement Kit. This kit enables users to make Internet phone calls using a regular phone, cordless phone, or even a mobile phone. Users can save on long-distance calls, with the same quality and ease as a regular phone call. This is a software upgrade, available from ACS Innovations for $30.

After the installation and testing of our Internet connections, we dialed from one PC to the second. We went with the “internal speaker” setting for the alert, which provided a ringing which sounded like a cricket chirping. We had the option of dialing either the phone number or the IP address. The option of dialing the IP address is flawed, because most computers dialing into ISPs are assigned a dynamic address, and the caller would not know what the current IP address is at that moment.

We tried several calls, setting up the options that best suited us. After dialing, the caller is prompted to hang up, and wait for the software to negotiate the connection. When it has connected, the phone rings and you can talk to the user on the other computer. For our first call, we used two different ISPs, to test the system in a “real-life” environment.

However, once the call was underway, the latency was very bad — below average compared to most similar products. However, the quality of the voice was remarkably good, and was amazing for a product in this category — at the level of systems in the $20,000 range.

We tried the same test again, except this time we dialed into the same ISP with both PCs. This was a test to check to see if the latency was any better using the same ISP. A ping test confirmed the latency was slightly less, but any difference was not noticeable audibly. The quality and latency remained the same as before, and using the same ISP didn’t make any noticeable difference.

There is also a default voice in a clipped British accent that gives the appropriate vocal prompts (i.e., “caller is not available,” or “searching the user on the Internet — you may hang up the telephone now”). Generally easy to handle and use, operating Ezfone shouldn’t prove problematic to most non-technical users.

In a product that allows users to make phone calls over the Internet or a data network, there are five factors that have to be considered: Latency, echo, jitter, sound quality, and packet loss. Obviously, in a SOHO environment, users are most concerned with good sound quality, minimal latency, echo, and jitter — in that order. Packet loss wouldn’t be a factor in these situations.

The most glaring problem with Ezfone is the bad latency. When we tested the product, we found the latency to be almost two seconds. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of the sound quality, which was far better than average for this type of product.

Almost as poor is the inability to work behind a proxy server. Many companies have proxy servers installed, and this limits the number of job sites at which Ezfone can be effectively installed. However, it is able to work behind a firewall, which helps to increase the number of sites where it can be installed — but this takes some configuring.

The GUI is also a problem. While the image of a phone is fine, the absence of a “close window” box on the phone-shaped window is bad. The only way to close the window (besides shutting down the computer) is to right-click on the small icon in the system tray, in the far-right section of the taskbar. When Ezfone is open, it is not listed in the taskbar the way that other open applications are. In addition, the window is not expandable, and the log on the top portion of the GUI is only able to display three lines of text, and requires scrolling to see anything beyond the current three lines. Since nearly every transaction uses more than three lines, scrolling is necessary every time you want to view the log.

Another minor, but annoying problem is the inability to “backspace” on the GUI, in the event you hit an incorrect number. The only solution to this is using the backspace on the keyboard — which works — but a “clear” button (similar to those on fax machines) would be helpful. Finally, in order to connect to the Internet, Ezfone requires an ISP that uses Windows dial-up networking, and not any proprietary software that some ISPs use. Ezfone is not compatible with any dialing software other than Windows dial-up networking. This is a minor flaw, but could have an impact on the decision-making process of whether to buy this system, as changing an ISP may not be an option for some companies.�

When considering a product like Ezfone, the end user must decide how much latency is acceptable, and if it is worth the expense of superior sound quality. An Internet phone kit that works as promised is what you get when you buy Ezfone. Unfortunately, Ezfone is unable to provide a comfortable balance between minimal latency and acceptable sound quality. A good analogy would be listening to the classics on a radio station with a lot of static: No matter how good the performance is, the music is hard to enjoy because of the static.

Despite the many good things we found about Ezfone, the latency was among the worst we’ve ever experienced — even compared to software-only packages (WebPhone, etc.), which are notorious for having less-than-average latency. A higher rating would’ve been achieved had the latency issue been any better, but it was impossible to overlook that. Until Ezfone is able to strike a balance between sound quality and the latency issue, most users are going to find that despite all the good features and superior sound quality, Ezfone’s one major shortcoming is too much to overlook.

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