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Second Quarter 1998


Aplio, Inc.
PO Box 78
San Bruno, CA 94066-0789
Ph.: 888-OH.APLIO
Fx.: 650-794-2770
Web: www.aplio.com 

Price: $199 per unit ($378 for two).

Installation: 5
Documentation: 3.5
Features: 5
Overall: A

Aplio/Phone by Aplio, Inc., is a PC-less personal Internet gateway device, part of a class that’s come to be known as Internet telephony appliances. Such devices attach to your telephone in a manner similar to answering machines. They’re excellent for SOHO and personal use, and when one long-distance number is called often, Internet telephony appliances play a huge role in reducing you overall long-distance bills, Perhaps the only drawback to this model of Internet telephony is that both users must have such an appliance installed. However at this price point, that might not be something so horrible.

Conversations using "Internet appliances" sound like analog cellular phone calls, and worse, there is a split-second delay between what one party says and what the other party hears, and that makes for awkward conversation. We can’t tell you if losing call quality to save on toll charges is worth the sacrifice (that all depends on your point of view), but we encourage users to write us with their opinions.

The appearance of the Aplio/Phone and competitor’s devices is that of a futuristic answering machine. Like most computer and telephony hardware, installation of the actual unit is simple. There are just three wires to attach: One each for line-in, phone-out, and A/C power.

Configuring Aplio/Phone requires two things: first, that you know the username, password, and dial-up phone number to your Internet provider, and second, that you read the manual closely. Here’s why: programming alphanumeric characters that compose the username and password requires users to enter two-digit codes corresponding with each number, letter, or symbol. Numbers are particularly complex: 0 is 00, 1 is 01, 5 is 05, etc. But when you enter the ISP phone number, that system doesn’t apply — using the telephone keypad, you enter just the actual number, plus any dialing prefixes. Additionally, you need to enter the pound symbol after keying in the phone number. The username and password fields require entering both the ending pound and a beginning asterisk.

For example, to enter the phone number 555-1234, you would enter 5551234#. Then, to enter the username Fred, you would enter * 15 57 44 43 #, which are the codes for begin, uppercase F, lowercase 57, 44, and 43 and end. (Don’t forget that usernames and passwords are case-sensitive.) Passwords are entered the same way. Finally, you enter one more number that tells the Aplio/Phone which type of Internet connection you have. Standard PPP accounts are usually type "1" and proprietary accounts have specific codes that are defined in the user’s manual. Again, press pound after entering these codes.

Overall, configuring the Aplio/Phone is a simple process, and requires less information than competing products (which tend to require more sophisticated information like DNS entries).

Aplio/Phone’s documentation is poor. One of the manuals we received was literally impossible to read because of low print quality, and we found typographical errors in the code chart that, to an untrained eye, can baffle users and cause failed connections. We also noticed that the table of contents referred to every topic as page 0, which is an inexcusable blunder. Additionally, the mentions of pressing the appropriate asterisk and pound buttons should be strongly emphasized: As it stands, the references are buried and easy to overlook.

The unit has several interesting features.We like the economy mode, which does away entirely with toll charges by adding an "answer" mode. Normally, the initiating user pays for the minute or two of long-distance while both users’ devices are connecting. With the answer mode, users can call another Aplio/Phone directly, because each unit has a built-in serial number that translates into an IP address. After two particular units "talk" once, each unit "remembers" the other unit’s serial number, allowing a swifter connection. Up to 100 serial numbers can be stored in 500 KB of flash memory, which is more than plenty for the numbers and for future software updates.

There’s also a speakerphone, a self-test feature, and options for downloading periodic software updates. We liked the manual’s troubleshooting and configuration worksheets, and the device itself has well-marked buttons.

As we mentioned above, audio quality on devices like this is comparable to that of analog cellular phones, but that isn’t so bad in and of itself. The biggest problem is the speaking delay. Conversational patterns more closely resemble CB radios than telephones, however this factor is consistent from brand to brand.

To make a call, users first connect over standard long-distance. Either user — but not both — presses their machine’s "Aplio" button. This button makes each unit disconnect the phone call and dial the ISP using a 33.6 modem. Next, each unit contacts Aplio’s "IP finder" server, which collects each unit’s serial number and assigns it an IP address. Finally, the units exchange the IP addresses with each other, and the connection is made.

The machine tells users that they may hang up the receiver while the connections are being made, but this is not mandatory. If one or both users do hang up, however, their unit will ring when the connection is complete. Users then pick up the phone and begin the conversation. We found this system and the DSP-based audio to work well.

We’d like to see the unit redesigned with a conventional box shape so a telephone or answering machine can rest on top of it. We’d also like to see revamped documentation, and obviously, the less expensive Aplio can make it, the better off users are. Otherwise, we’re told that future versions will be H.323 compatible, meaning that the unit can connect to any standard telephony device such as Microsoft’s NetMeeting. This type of interoperability will go a long way toward making Internet telephony a more mainstream means of communication.

We award Aplio our Editor's Choice award for developing a product that is less expensive, easier to install and more feature-rich than some of its competitors. Anyone who has a long-distance bill of more than $50 a month to a specific phone number could benefit from using an Internet telephony appliance such as Aplio/Phone; the return on investment is fast and the benefits are obvious. We look forward to seeing more products of this quality at TMC Labs.

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