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Product Reviews
 September 2001


Hi-Phone Traveler

Way2Call Communications Inc.
7 Giborei Israel St., Ste. 212
Netnaya, Israel 42504
Phone: + 972-9-8851111;
Fax: + 972-9-8859914

Price: $149.00 for the Hi-Phone Traveler. The Software Development Kit is sold separately for $399.00.

Installation: 4.5
Documentation: 3.0
Features: 3.0
GUI: 3.0
Overall: B

Travel time should be productive time...right? Any well-seasoned member of the business-class understands that it's simply imperative to wage war on the stilling minutes of travel. The efficacious business travelers' unspoken code surely labels dozens of devices as "effective means" to stay connected while away from the office. Our industry has been especially instrumental in providing white-collared warriors with their choice weapons of war. The cell phone, the PDA, the laptop, smart phones, Web mail, CASPs... the list goes on. The point is that every shrewd business traveler's quill is bulging with different forms of these essentials, all aimed at ensuring connectivity, which bolsters productivity while away from the office.

Way2Call has introduced a PCMCIA card that delivers a unique communication solution that Way2Call says can "turn a portable computer into a world-wide telephone booth." Way2Call's Hi-Phone Traveler has been fitted with a RJ-11 adapter allowing for the connection of an analog telephone, which displaces the need for a microphone and speakers. The Hi-Phone Traveler can be utilized in conjunction with an ITSP or NetMeeting to make VoIP calls as a low-cost, or no-cost, alternative to the PSTN. Theoretically speaking, wherever you can take a laptop and maintain an IP connection, the Hi-Phone Traveler can be used. We installed the product on one of our test laptops and made some IP to PSTN and straight IP calls to analyze sound quality, ease-of-use, and overall product performance.

According to the documentation we received with the Hi-Phone Traveler sample kit, minimum system requirements are four MB of free hard disk space, a Pentium processor of 166 MHz or higher, and Windows operating systems 95, 98, NT4 with service packs four and six, 2000, or ME. Additionally, you'll need TAPI 2.1 and Winsock 2.0, an analog telephone and an Internet connection. We tested the Hi-Phone Traveler over both dialup and our LAN.

The Hi-Phone Traveler PCMCIA card was installed in an open slot on a laptop with 64 MB of RAM, a five GB hard drive, a Celeron processor, and Windows 98 SE. After we rebooted the system new hardware was immediately found. We specified the path as the documentation suggested (d:\win98), which happens to be the only way the system is capable of detecting the drivers. Selecting only the CD-ROM-drive checkbox did not search successfully for the drivers on the installation disk.

After completing driver installation, Auto Run had already launched the Hi-Phone Set-Up window. All that remained was installing the software. The installation was very simple, and all told the entire procedure (including hardware and driver installation) was completed within a 15-minute course.

The documentation for an end-user product such as this was standard. A .pdf file included with the installation disk provided basic "how-to" instructions. A quick start guide accompanied the hardware and installation disk, which got us up-and-running in a timely manner.

Originally, we were a bit confused when reaching a certain stage in our testing of this product. It seemed we were having a spot of trouble making PC-to-PC calls. Initially, we thought it might be TMCs seemingly impenetrable firewall. Using a couple of computers with dialup access, we bypassed our metaphoric "Brick House" using two unfiltered conduits able to transport Lionel, The Commodores, and their entire wardrobe of then-trendy "flare-wear" directly to our desktops. We then attempted another PC-to-PC, which again failed, therefore quickly eliminating the firewall as the potential problem.

Actually, we found that it was our interpretation of the documentation that presented the problem for us. In the section, "From PC-to-PC" the steps clearly outline how to make a PC-to-PC call, but didn't mention the "rules" of completing a successful transmission. So we assumed since the documentation professed H.323 compatibility that it was possible to make calls from the Way2Call/iconnecthere GUI to NetMeeting. Actually this wasn't the case.

A call from the Way2Call office in Israel cleared things up. At the time of testing this product, a PC-to-PC call could only be made two ways, according to our conversation with several Way2Call engineers. Using the Way2Call/iconnecthere GUI a PC-to-PC call can be made successfully to another computer on the iconnecthere network. A PC-to-PC call can also be made using NetMeeting to any other computer using NetMeeting (hence the H.323 compatibility). The "From PC-to-PC" section of the user manual didn't mention this fact. Without expending too much more space on this point, it would have been helpful to us if this were more clearly stated.

Additionally, for the same reason, we felt that NetMeeting should be listed somewhere as a possible requirement for operation, contingent upon context in which the product is to be used. Though we understand Microsoft's deep market penetration and software bundling/marketing strategies, there are still some computers out there that aren't occupied by the NetMeeting (3.0 version and above) freeware.

The Way2Call Hi-Phone Traveler is a standard PCMCIA card (type II) with an RJ-11 adapter allowing an analog phone to be used in conjunction with the system, which does produce ring voltage to announce an incoming PC-to-PC call. The Hi-Phone Traveler is a Plug & Play device supporting the G.711 codec. It is capable of passing PC-to-Phone and PC-to-PC communication in full-duplex audio utilizing echo cancellation. The hardware also contains firmware that's upgradeable via the Web.

Way2Call also provides some development tools including open architecture and an available software developer's kit (see pricing information at the beginning of this article). Way2Call has also formed an alliance with deltathree's iconnecthere offering, a communication portal and ITSP network, which presents Hi-Phone Traveler owners with 60 minutes of free calling within or to the USA. iconnecthere also provides additional services.

The GUIs are primarily launched from the system tray. A single click or a right-click on the miniature icon launches a menu with most of the product controls. A double-click launches the volume and gain controls. Both methods allow you to access telephony configuration. And tapping into the telephony menu reveals which ITSPs Way2Call is working with these days.

According to the Way2Call engineers, they've been testing their product with a host of other ITSPs, and say that at this time they're compatible with many of them. While we made unsuccessful attempts to confirm which service providers they've been performing compatibility testing with, or how many different ITSPs they've tested, it's good to know that they're planning ahead. This is not to suggest that the Hi-Phone can be used with any ITSP at this time, rather, only that Way2Call has made the necessary provisions to allow it, if partnerships happen to be made.

While their product is fully interoperable with iconnecthere and Net2Phone (according to an official at Way2Call), they've only struck up an agreement with iconnecthere at this point. Though Net2Phone is listed in the telephony menu as a selection for an ITSP, a business agreement hadn't been finalized at the time this review went to print.

The product comes configured with iconnecthere as the default ITSP for the device. As a result, a hybrid GUI pops up when the PC-to-Phone dialer is activated. A greeting by this interface puzzled us initially because it didn't seem able to allow us much functionality -- "Slightly odd," we thought, for the product's initial "handshake" to limit the user in this way. In any event, being the over-anxious and inquisitive sorts (as lab staffers often are) we forewent the instructional .PDF and picked up the handset of the analog phone linked to the RJ-11 adapter on the PCMCIA card (the laptop also established an IP connection at this time). And to our pleasant surprise, a dial tone resonated through the earpiece of the analog phone.

Since we've all been conditioned by "Ma-Bell's" distinctive tone, intuition told us to begin pecking a number into the keypad. After the main Lab phone number was input, the call was initiated by pressing the Pound key on the phone. This routed the call to iconnecthere's network, which then hopped off at the closest PSTN gateway and after a few seconds, the call connected -- and seemed to be clear.

Having found good call quality on the initial trial, we opted to perform a few unannounced experiments using several unsuspecting Lab editors as our test bed. Routine office messages were left in certain Lab editors' voice mailboxes (when they were out of the office) in much the same way our first test call was placed -- from the Hi-Phone traveler, using the iconnecthere ITSP over a dialup connection (28.8). None of the other editors suspected anything out of the ordinary when they received the messages. In fact, when told how each message had come to arrive in their mailboxes, they were impressed. The PC-to-Phone quality seemed to be quite good throughout our testing period.

As stated in the Documentation section of this article, PC-to-PC operation was a bit tricky at first. The software was configured to default to the Way2Call/iconnecthere GUI to make our initial PC-to-PC calls. We attempted to connect via the iconnecthere interface to a NetMeeting client across an IP network without much success. After discussing the matter with Way2Call officials, we learned that at this time the interface works only in conjunction with another user on the iconnecthere network. Two things are actually required to make a PC-to-PC call. First changing the PC-to-PC setting to "dial all PC calls using NetMeeting," and second launching the NetMeeting client. So to be clear, if users of the Hi-Phone Traveler are not on the same ITSP network as their target audience (iconnecthere was the only ITSP fully compatible with the Hi-Phone Traveler at the time of testing), they've got to interface using the well-known interpreter of the H.323 protocol, NetMeeting. Once we launched NetMeeting, connection was as simple as making any other NetMeeting call. At the time of testing, the Hi-Phone Traveler we evaluated wasn't equipped with an on-board digital signal processor (DSP), as a result all the compression was handled by the NetMeeting client. The sound quality was variable.

We thought the interfaces could use a little tightening up. The operative word here is "interfaces." One of the first things we noticed after installation is that the Way2Call interface by itself, is actually not much more than a few menus launched from the icon running in the system tray. Each one of these menus appear to afford a bit of different, but at times overlapping functionality. Use of the pop-up style menus makes determining the status and running services difficult without launching and quickly perusing the menus. Further, a separate window must be opened to adjust the volume and microphone gain controls for the device, while more importantly furnishing an On/Off button to stop and start services. Not that it was an overwhelming inconvenience to perform any one of these tasks, but instead, while fine tuning the software or just using it routinely, it didn't seem to perform as efficiently as it could have.

A single GUI aimed at unifying all these features could enhance the products desktop appearance, while making the end-user interface more intuitive, requiring few steps to complete tasks. To this proposed "unified" interface, perhaps bring some of the status indicators to the forefront such as the On/Off (stop and start services) indicator and the current ITSP and PC-to-PC client choices.

There is one other proposition we've invited ourselves to prescribe. Given the reference to the previously suggested "unified GUI," we thought it may further unify, and to some degree simplify the interface, if it additionally possessed the ability to become a gateway to the IP world by employing the H.323 protocol on it's own. That is to suggest Way2Call supply it's own unified H.323 interface instead of using someone else's. This would dually eliminate the reliance on an outside element (NetMeeting), and the need for yet another interface (NetMeeting), while abolishing the possibility that the product may not be ready for PC-to-PC calls "out of the box" because of it's dependence on a factor that isn't 100 percent assured (the presence of NetMeeting). In contrast though, it's also a big plus and definite product enhancement to continue to be interoperable with the popular freeware, which also makes available the valuable Internet Locator Service (ILS), which supplies a form of presence-based detection.

Mobility is becoming an increasingly important factor to consider when addressing even the very idea of computing these days. As a result the laptop computer has become a staple in the everyday lives of business people, college students, and even the layperson. Way2Call has created a communication solution that addresses and fulfils a need for VoIP users owning laptops that welcome an alternative to a headset or (in our opinion) worse, a microphone and speakers.

Though it seemed to need a bit of fine-tuning, for what could be characterized as essentially the first release of the product, it performed without a glitch. Actually, at the time of product testing, Way2Call was still trying to determine which brand of one-inch mini-phone (a small device designed for use with the RJ-11 standard) would be shipped with the product. Additionally, by time you're reading this, Way2Call says they'll have a version of the Hi-Phone Traveler with an on-board digital signal processor (DSP) available. They are also attempting to coordinate efforts with services able to provide Internet phone numbers. Way2Call says that a partnership with a popular IP-PBX manufacturer is also in the works.

[ Return To The September 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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