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Product Reviews
June 2001


Yap Phone

Yap Division
520 Broad St. 14th Floor
Newark, NJ 07102
Tel: 973-412-2800
Fax: 973-412-2841
E-Mail: [email protected]

Price: $54.99 per unit

Installation: 4.75
Documentation: 3.0
Features: 3.5
GUI: 3.0
Overall: B-

What was one of the most important lessons you learned during that first semester in college? Was it finally understanding how the U.S. economy functions? Realizing that you are capable of memorizing an entire semester of art history in one night? Perhaps it was actually finding your inner self. Maybe it was all, or a combination of, the aforementioned. This editor learned very early on that putting the phone bill in his name was a grave mistake. It was the shock coupled with the mounting anxious fever as I read: Three-hundred-fifty dollars centered, and printed neatly in the little "Amount Due" box on the bottom of my first phone bill, which reminds me of that lesson. The second most important lesson was learning not to trust that a roommate from a town called "Mechanicville" would pay his share of the phone bill on time. At some point, in some way, most of us have had to deal with a similar situation, which hopefully served as a wake-up call, drawing communications charges, taxes, and miscellaneous fees within our circle of consciousness. Long-distance charges, as we all know can be a huge expense. This is especially true for chatty, away-from-home college kids, many of which have not yet developed a solid understanding of the concepts and relationship that exists between total freedom, responsibility, and creditors.

But whether the target market for VoIP gadgets is still predominantly college students, or expanding to include business owners, everyday consumers, or even technically savvy grandparents�all parties surely favor the liberty of speaking freely with little or no associated cost. And with popularity growing and quality of VoIP improving, we thought it was a good time to take a look at some new "Internet" phones. With this in mind, a couple of new VoIP phones were acquired for testing: Net2Phone's Yap (Your Alternative Phone) and newchip's NewVoice DSP040 with ZMM technology.

The Yap Phone is a USB handset manufactured by Silicon Portals and is sold by Net2Phone along with their IP telephony service under the brand "Yap Phone." The Yap (Your Alternative Phone) brand belongs to Net2Phone, which also offers other Yap-brand products in addition to the phone. Net2Phone titles this compilation of "extreme" looking products as Yap Gear. Yap Gear includes the Yap Phone, Yap Jack, and a Yap Headset, which are all sold separately. The products have been selling in larger U.S. retail stores like Office Max, CompUSA, Fry's, and Office Depot since May 2000. We installed the phone in our lab and did some testing to help us form opinions on usability, ease-of-use, hardware practicality, and performance of the product.

According to the instructions that arrived with the phone, the unit professes its compatibility with the Windows 98 Second Edition operating system. That being the case, we opted to install on a '98 machine with a Pentium III and 64 MB of RAM. The Yap Phone required a few steps before it was up and running. It also requires: Windows 98, a PC with a sound card, a Pentium II 266 processor or higher, 16 MB of RAM (32 MB recommended), a 28.8 or higher modem, and a free USB port. The most important thing to note about the Yap Phone's installation is not to actually plug in the phone until prompted to do so by the set-up wizard. Once the files are installed, simply click the Reboot Now button. When the system comes back up, the Net2Phone installation wizard launches automatically, and begins to install that software. Since we had a more current version of Net2Phone already installed on our test machine, we declined the wizard. We were ready to place some calls.

A small, almost pocketsize quick-start guide was included with the product and software. More detailed documentation is available in PDF format on the installation CD, and from the Web site. Additionally available on the Web site are product FAQs and the latest software release (at the time this review was written, version 1.5, updated 2/19/01 was available). It was newer than the version of software that arrived with our product, so we opted to load it.

The quick-start guide offers plenty of screen shots and basic instructions for installing the phone and Net2Phone software. It also employs a troubleshooting guide, which appears just before the one-year warranty on the last page, in which Silicon Portals is named as warrantor on the hardware. So if you didn't catch the introduction to the article, Silicon Portals manufactures the phone.

One thing that bothered us about the documentation was that both the quick-start guide and the user's guide regularly illustrated a totally different GUI than that which accompanied our phone. Initially we assumed that it was just a question of having the latest version of documentation, which of course, should accommodate the latest software release. Upon visiting the Web site to reference the posted documentation we realized it was the same as what was received with the product. In any event, the documentation was adequate, though we didn't encounter an actual occasion in which we needed to reference it for guidance.

Net2Phone puts usability and familiarity on the forefront with its PSTN-like features keeping the learning curve to a minimum. The handset arrived with a cradle and base (some assembly required). In addition to storing the phone removing it from the base activates the off-hook feature, which in turn launches the GUI. Though there is no simulated dial tone, and the phone doesn't ring (though we thought that would be a really useful feature) when receiving a PC-to-PC call, a number can be pecked into the keypad and sent right from the handset without touching the computer (once the Yap Phone software is running).

Speed dial, a call history, and phone book (to store numbers only) are also featured, and they're also accessible without touching the keyboard or mouse, but by instead using the "mouse like" wheel on the side of the phone, both to call up different directories, and dial the number from the handset. The phone also houses buttons to activate mute, initiate, and end a call (similar to function of the "Send" and "End" buttons on a cell phone), a backspace button, numeric keypad, and also a button to display your account balance within the GUI. The back of the handset has an imbedded small green light, which illuminates if the phone is off-hook.

The Yap Phone hardware is distinctive both in color and shape. At first glance you may wonder how practical the design really is, but further inquiry revealed that the design is actually very user-friendly, lending itself to comfort, usability, and practicality -- less the phone cord. The earpiece is shaped in a way that when placed against the human ear, it prevents unwanted outside noise from interfering with the voice transmission. The design of the phone itself makes it easy to hold, and its shape allows you to easily balance the phone between your ear and shoulder (hands free). The GUI is a simple interface affording greater functionality to the Yap Phone user. The GUI has a small display at the top, which exhibits things like the digits selected from the phone's keypad, and a user's Net2Phone account balance. In addition to speed dial and phone book options, the GUI also supports a call history, which records phone numbers and Net2Phone user names.

A PSTN-like keypad is located on the inside of the handset, which can be used to dial out. Calls can also be initiated using the Net2Phone interface. We were hopeful the keypad also possessed the alphanumeric feature so we could expedite the initiation of a PC-to-PC call from the handset by spelling out Net2Phone usernames, but we ended up having to use the computer keyboard. The phone also houses buttons to initiate a call, end a call (on hook), and check your Net2Phone account balance.

To expedite testing, we launched WinTop and placed some PSTN calls. The highest CPU usage was noted when Net2Phone was initiating the call. Other than that, the system remained almost idle. The quality of the calls varied with each connection. As a rule, PC-to-PC calls were generally of better quality than anything over the PSTN, though that has no bearing on the phone's performance. The microphone pick-up and earpiece volume were both excellent.

Beginning with the aesthetics: The cord didn't seem long enough to suit us, and wasn't very pliable. Our '98 test-machine resides on an over-head rack about six-feet high, which was an inconvenience when testing the Yap Phone because of its cord length. We also experienced the same wish for a longer cord when testing the phone on a 2000 machine, which resides under a desk. The location problems wouldn't have been a factor if the phone cord was made from a more pliable material, or designed to extend farther.

Initially (before installation) we thought the "mouse-like" wheel in the side of the handset may have been for earpiece volume, though after the software installation we discovered that it's used to access the GUI from the handset. It would have been nice if a hardware volume control existed allowing for quick adjustments. Also, the base was too light. Though the rubber bottom assisted in gripping almost any surface, nearly every time the phone was placed in the cradle it had to be done carefully to ensure the entire unit wouldn't tip over. An optional vise-type device, or some sort of wall mount would have been key, but of course, a wall mount would almost certainly require a longer cord. Additionally, the off-hook indicator light was really neat, and the hang-up button on the phone was really cool, but they didn't seem to have much of a purpose. It seemed that when off-hook, the Yap Phone's GUI launches, and reciprocally the phone did end a call when it was placed in its cradle. What we're getting at here is, we still had to answer PC-to-PC calls using the Net2Phone interface. Unless there's a trick that we missed, which wasn't explained in the documentation, it was necessary to click the Yes button on the Net2Phone interface to accept an incoming call. Picking up the handset so it goes off-hook did not answer our PC-to-PC calls, nor did it deter an incoming call if it wasn't in its cradle. In these ways, the Yap Phone does not mirror the traditional behavior of a PSTN phone. Additionally we thought a great feature would be enabling the "off-hook" indicator light to work in conjunction with Net2Phone's Internet Answering Machine, to say, blink when a message has been taken alerting the user without having to check the computer's monitor.

The Yap Phone was designed to work in conjunction with its own software, which employs a GUI, call history, and speed dial. The Yap Phone is also constructed with a rugged, PSTN-like design, incorporating some standard PSTN-like functionality. The Yap Phone requires some setup, but it's got software, it's got a GUI, it's got a keypad, it's got Net2Phone's backing. The voice quality seemed to vary, almost with each call -- which we expected due to connection quality.

Each manufacturer seemed to have different functionality in mind when engineering their phones. The DSP040 has an on board digital signal processor, true Plug and Play functionality that works with existing drivers on many different operating systems, and the ability to work with any ITSP, but supplies no GUI or additional functionality. According to our newchip contact, the DSP040 is available to system integrators right now for around $50.00, and will retail later this year between $30.00 and $40.00. The Yap Phone on the other hand, affords its own GUI and
additional functionality, but requires an installation CD and implementation of its own drivers. Its design also supplies a keypad and other PSTN-like features, but only works in conjunction with Net2Phone as the ITSP. The Yap Phone retails for around $55.00.

Since both of these handsets are billed as "Internet phones" it seemed only fitting that we test them over their targeted medium, using the sometimes-unruly routers, lines, and other hardware that link together, shaping the Internet as we know it today. The bottom line is this: You just don�t know what kind of quality you�re going to get from call to call. Sometimes the quality is good, and sometimes... it's not so good.

That being said, we deliberated upon what to do about this development. Is it fair to discount a product because of its reliance on a medium to help deliver quality? No, probably not. Though, it wouldn't be fair for us to not discuss this factor either. That left us in a rather precarious position, or so we thought, but after some careful consideration our decision wasn't so hard after all: The newchip NewVoice DSP040 was worthy of the Editors' Choice award. It affords users the option of using more than just one ITSP, and as previously stated it requires no installation, in addition to furnishing ZMM's digital signal processor. Which still doesn't quite earn it enough merit, until we factored this in: the DSP040 requires no soundcard. Which gives it an edge over headsets as well, and dually extends the product's reach to any CPU with a USB port.

The lack of a GUI didn't really bother us much considering most ITSPs provide the essentials, including a call history, address book, and balance availability within their own GUI. Lastly we hope that newchip delivers on the estimated retail price point of the DSP040, as that should be a major factor when deciding between it, and another phone or headset. Especially if the CPU(s) meant for installation are already equipped with a sound card.

In conclusion it's necessary to note that these phones are new, in fact, the DSP040 wasn't available for retail sale at the time of this product review, and was still beta testing with Linux. We enjoyed testing each product, as they both showed some innovation and are paving the way for an industry standard. We�ll be following both companies for future product releases and refinements, and also keeping our eye out for additional handsets to compare, as we continue our coverage of this
burgeoning market.

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