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Product Reviews
July 2001



205 Orange St.
New Haven, CT 06510
Tel: 203-772-2204
Fax: 203-772-4399

Price: $279

Editor's Choice Award

Installation: 5
Documentation: 4
Features: 4.75
GUI: 4
Overall: A-

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 Testing section.

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 the U.S.

Other features include:

  • Firmware upgradeable across Internet;
  • DTMF tone generation;
  • DHCP support to automatically configure its IP settings;
  • 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 future.

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.

Broadband VoIP
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.

Payment Plans
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 credit card.

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.

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.

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