College students were some of the first to discover the
benefits of Internet telephony. They would use Internet
telephony to make cheap long-distance calls to their
family and friends. For students based abroad, the
financial benefits of using Internet telephony were even
greater since international calls can easily cost
hundreds if not thousands of dollars a month for the
truly gabby individual. Hippo has a few Internet
telephony products that are perfect for the family
reducing student telephone costs, including the 250E
(supports broadband) and the 250EP (supports broadband
and dial-up Internet). We took a test drive of hippo's
250EP, which supports both "Ethernet" (broadband)
and "Phone" dial-up, hence the model initials "EP."
Installation was beyond simple. We connected a network
wire to the 250EP's Ethernet port, a phone wire to the
RJ-11 analog port, and then hooked up the power
connector. The system booted up and displayed a message "hippo inc. VoIP phone powered by Hardhat Linux."
This was TMC Labs' first look at a Linux-based VoIP
appliance, so we were quite excited. Next, we had to
choose from "1-Static LAN," "2-DHCP," or "3-Dial-up
PPP" displayed on the LCD screen. We figured we would
start with the most difficult setup to configure, which
is option three -- dial-up. On the LCD screen, we were
prompted to enter the ISP phone number and we used the
telephone number keypad to enter it.
Next, we had to enter the username, which also uses
the numeric telephone keypad. To type alphanumeric
characters, you simply use the ever-popular method of
pressing the number key with the appropriate letter
beneath the number key several times until the correct
letter is displayed. For example, to get the letter "A,"
you simply press the number "2" twice. After
entering the username, we used the same procedure to
enter the password.
Once this was done, the initial setup was complete
and we could proceed with making actual test calls. We
also tested changing to "static LAN" and the "DHCP"
configuration, which we discuss in the Operational
The documentation consisted of twenty-nine 8" by
11" pages printed in landscape mode. The manual
utilized a very large font, which was very easy to read,
although the large font made us feel like we were back
in pre-school playing with alphabet magnets. The sheer
length of the manual (29 pages) could have easily been
condensed into a small booklet that could fit in one's
pocket. Other than this minor complaint, the manual was
quite good. It was well organized, explained things
step-by-step, and included a troubleshooting guide as
well as an FAQ section.
One of the key features is that no PC is required for
the 250EP. Full duplex voice compression is utilized for
efficient use of bandwidth. VAD (voice activity
detection) saved bandwidth by delivering voice, not
silence. Save on long-distance charges by going through
an ITSP, which offer much lower rates than traditional
PSTN, including $.029 cents per minute to anywhere in
Other features include:
- Firmware upgradeable across Internet;
- DTMF tone generation;
- DHCP support to automatically configure its IP
- Works through NAT/firewalls; and
- Backlit 4 x 20 character LCD display.
After configuring the unit to use dial-up Internet
access, we then proceeded to attempt to make our first
VoIP call on the 250EP. We typed "2032952000" and
pressed the "talk " button. We could then hear the
internal modem dialing out to the ISP to establish an
Internet connection. Several seconds later, we then were
greeted with our corporate auto-attendant. We then
entered a three-digit extension on the 250EP and were
connected to one of the TMC Labs engineers. The voice
quality was excellent, with minimal latency, and we didn't
experience any break-ups in the voice. It must have been
a good day for the Internet! Also, if we didn't watch
one another's lips moving, the latency would have been
imperceivable. The 250EP uses an internal 33.6kbps modem
along with the Lucent sx9600 (9.6kbps) compression codec.
Hippo plans to add G.723.1 and G.729a in the near
While using dial-up Internet access, when you end a
call, it doesn't immediately disconnect from your
dial-up ISP, which is a nice feature. You are then able
to make a second, third, fourth (or more) consecutive
call right away without having to wait for the 250EP's
modem to dial-up and connect to the ISP.
For our next test, we decided to try using the Ethernet
port. We went into the configuration menu and enabled "DHCP," since we have a DHCP server on our network.
Then, to ensure it wouldn't dial out via the "dial-up"
connection, we disconnected the phone wire temporarily.
We then made another test VoIP call, and once again the
quality was excellent and surprisingly the latency didn't
seem any better or worse. You would think that a T1
Internet connection would offer better latency than a
dial-up connection. I guess we'll chalk that up to
hippo's excellent compression algorithms. We're sure
the latency is better on the T1, but our human ears can't
discern a few milliseconds.
Next, we put the phone wire back in, since we were
curious what would happen if the Ethernet/LAN Internet
access went down for some reason. We were hoping the
250EP would be intelligent enough to "sense" this
and automatically switch over to dial-up. When we
unplugged the Ethernet wire and attempted to make a VoIP
call it gave us an error message. We had to manually
change to dial-up PPP.
We only had one test unit, but we asked hippo if
their product allowed you to call from unit-to-unit and
they said that in small networks, you could simply enter
the last three digits of the IP address. In larger
networks, a server is necessary to handle the IP address
mapping to each unit.
Another thing we should mention about the 250EP is its
billing methods. You can buy minutes online with just
your unit's serial number and a valid credit card! You
can also pre-pay by check. It can also be set up so that
it automatically replenishes your account when your
balance dips below $10 by automatically debiting your
We should mention that hippo currently supports the
Net2Phone network, which is one of the largest ITSPs in
the world. Hippo plans to add support for SIP, which
will pursue support for other ITSPs as well.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
We had a few suggestions to improve the product. First,
you can't abort the call to the ISP once you click the
talk button. It also should detect that the Ethernet
line is unplugged/down and auto-switch to dial-up. Or
perhaps having a manual override hotkey, such as "*55"
to quickly and manually change from Ethernet to dial-up.
The unit is a little "boxy" and not necessarily the
prettiest thing to look at, but we've had a "sneak
peek" at the next version which appears to be much
more chic. We'd like the ability to just put the
receiver down to hang up the phone, rather than pressing
the "end" button. Our final suggestion is simply
support for speakerphone.
TMC Labs liked hippo's 250EP very much, plain and
simple! The 250EP had excellent sound quality, minimal
latency, and a very good feature-set. It is one of the
few products that we've seen that support both
broadband and dial-up PPP Internet connections. That,
combined with its easy installation and ease of use
helped it earn an Editors' Choice Award.
To The July 2001 Table Of Contents ]