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Product Reviews
 November 2001



InnoMedia Inc.
90 Rio Robles
San Jose, CA 95134
Tel: 408-432-5400; Fax: 408-432-5404

Price: The PC-to-PC calling service to anywhere in the world is free. The PC-to-Phone rate to the U.S. from anywhere in the world is five cents per minute. Rates vary based on calling destination (see http://www.buddytalk.com/pc-to-phone-rates.html for further details). A flat rate of $3.00 per hour is charged to the initiator of a multi-party conference call.

Editor's Choice Award

Installation: 4.75
Documentation: 4.75
Features: 4.5
GUI: 4.5
Overall: A-

BuddyTalk is a SIP-based voice Internet communicator developed by InnoMedia, creators of InfoGate VoIP hardware products, and InnoSphere, InnoMedia's global Internet telephony service network. Using InnoSphere to link its users, BuddyTalk provides services targeting "online PC users." InnoMedia's VP of Marketing, Robert Selzler, whittles down its target market by saying, "We envision it [BuddyTalk] as the perfect communication tool for teens and young adults, as well as helping friends and families to stay connected." Additional product-related materials TMC Labs received seemed to indicate that InnoMedia is also positioning BuddyTalk as a SOHO and distance-learning tool.

BuddyTalk is freeware available at www.buddytalk.com that combines PC-to-phone and PC-to-PC calling with instant messaging and multi-party voice conferencing services. Billed as a "4-in-1" communication tool, BuddyTalk was designed to alleviate the task of managing multiple communication programs. Any Internet surfer with a PC meeting the minimum system requirements (see Installation) can download a copy of BuddyTalk and use all of its features free of charge for a limited time. Twenty minutes of PC-to-Phone calling and ten hours (or 45 days, whichever comes first) of multi-party conferencing are bundled with the 2 MB download. At the time of this product review PC-to-PC calling and the instant messaging feature did not have a cost appended to them after the trial period expired. Additionally, BuddyTalk is also available for PC manufacturers, PC peripheral manufacturers, service providers and other OEM partners interested in offering this solution to their customers.

At the time of testing we downloaded version 1.0.34 of the 2MB application from InnoMedia's Web site to three of our in-house test machines. All of the test machines met or exceeded the minimum system requirements deemed necessary by the online documentation. BuddyTalk operates in a Windows-only environment according to its reviewer's guide, running on Windows 98, Windows ME, or Windows 2000 operating systems. The guide also advises that a machine suited for running BuddyTalk should possess 7MB free hard disk space. Other necessary hardware includes a CD-ROM drive (if loading the freeware from an installation CD), a 28.8kbps Internet connection, and a full-duplex sound card. To use the multi-party conferencing feature, the host machine must have I.E. 4.0 (or above) installed. Finally, each end user must have a means to both hear and transmit voice through the sound card via a microphone and speakers, or a headset.

If all the system requirements are met, there aren't too many steps left. Log onto the BuddyTalk home page and download the .exe file. If you've got the installation CD, open your CD drive, and follow the installation wizard.

The installation of the BuddyTalk client is really very standard fare that requires little more description. Once the software's installed users are required to fill out the device configuration form. When inputting your information into the fields, be particularly careful to use a real e-mail address. An account number and password will be sent to that very address, both of which are essential to begin utilizing the service.

InnoMedia's BuddyTalk documentation is above average. TMC Labs received a hard copy of the Quick Install Guide, which is all anyone should need to get up and running. You're bound to have more trouble filling out the device and user information forms than installing and operating the software. That is, with one exception. If you're behind a firewall and especially if your firewall employs Network Address Translation (NAT), you'll have to contact your IT Administrator to open several ports (8481 and 8995). In addition to that, IT has to map your computer's address to receive requests from those (now open) ports. The bottom line is this, if you're planning on using BuddyTalk to banter back and forth with your golfing buddies at work, without telling the IT Dept.--forget it. Download AIM or something. The documentation does a superb job of outlining and explaining these issues and providing a workaround for some hardware.

Besides having all the documentation on their Web site, InnoMedia has gone the extra mile with BuddyTalk, which we thought might come in handy for novice computer operators. BuddyTalk FAQs will put a stop to lots of common questions in very short order. In addition to explaining the services of BuddyTalk, the Web site also provides detail about calling rates, and useful tips and tricks, a user's guide, as well as other helpful information. Most impressive -- and one of the reasons why we commend InnoMedia for their documentation -- is the knowledge portal. This gives users the option to query InnoMedia databases for resolutions of past user issues, which may provide users with the answers to seemingly indefinable problems.

The presence detection and conferencing GUIs are launched from the BuddyTalk Dialer interface, which additionally provides a text-chat record feature. Other features include the G.723 codec, integrated multi-party conferencing of up to 10 participants, PC-to-PC calling (free calling globally), PC-to-phone calling, and text (instant) messaging. BuddyTalk Servers provide server-based mixing and full-duplex conferencing capabilities. Web-based account management and call detail records (CDRs) are accessible at www.buddytalk.com with your BuddyTalk username and password. The service also provides free global PC-to-PC calling between BuddyTalk users in addition to the Global Search feature, which allows BuddyTalk members locate other members.

Dialer GUI includes:

  • Systems Menu;
  • Call/Hang Up Indicator;
  • Call History;
  • Memory menu;
  • Call status screen;
  • Call timer; and
  • Address Book.

Our newly acquired accounts came packaged with some free calling. Of course PC-to-PC calling is usually free with most Internet communication tools, but InnoMedia also bundled 20 free PC-to-Phone minutes and 10 multi-party conference calls. The product itself being marketed to a primarily to the consumer-based customer, was not designed for use behind a firewall. The firewall we use here in the Lab is equipped with Network Address Translation, since we've got about 80 PCs or so in our office. Required to open certain ports and map directly to an IP address for use behind a firewall, we weren't able to utilize BuddyTalk with a broadband connection because our firewall doesn't support this feature. That said, we dug up and installed a few dial-up modems to connect to the "Internet cloud." Less any cable or DSL service, we were unable to test BuddyTalk through the use of broadband access. It should also be mentioned all of our test PCs and laptops met or exceeded BuddyTalk system requirements. That said, we set out to test this "4-in-1" communication tool.

Text Chat
Though not so long ago text chat or "instant messaging" was nothing more than a hobbyist's gizmo, it has since become preponderant, adopted by most "mainstream" Internet users. From this writer's point of view it has become a social staple for Internet users of all levels. BuddyTalk too has joined the ranks by providing its own form of presence detection and instant messaging, both of which are built into their client software. The GUI is able to give indication whether or not a user's "buddies" are on or offline via a special icon. Double clicking on a user's name launches a text-chat box, which in addition to providing two-way text dialogue is also capable of creating a transcript of the conversation using the record feature. A time-and-date-stamp appears at the beginning of each new dialogue, which can be helpful for transcription purposes. "Chats" can also take place while a multi-party conference call is in session.

Multi-Party Conferencing
BuddyTalk's flagship feature, Multi-Party Conferencing is a VoIP conferencing feature in the consumer space. This, we feel, is a rather unique and innovative offering. Multi-Party Conferencing allows users to initiate a conference call by compiling a list of up to ten invitees in the "My Buddy Room" from their online buddies. The invitees must be online, and logged onto the BuddyTalk servers to participate in a conference call. The person who initiates the conference must invite all of the participants in addition to starting the conference. Other participants may be added while a conference is in session, but only by the host. In the same spirit, the host can also mute participants and "Expel" them from a conference at any time. It is logical that only the host then, incurs the three-dollar-per-hour fee for this service.

We tested the conferencing feature with fairly amiable results. Though the three parties involved didn't have identical equipment, quality seemed to vary (which is to be expected). One call in particular the latency seemed to be considerable. Nevertheless in all instances this feature did work. We didn't experience any irregularities such as dropped calls or high levels of noise, which can make communication laborious.

Both the PC-to-Phone and PC-to-PC seemed to provide decent call quality. Calls connected quickly while using the free 20 minutes of PC-to-Phone time and transmissions were clear. Similar to multi-party conferencing, we never experienced any dropped calls or a great degree of noise or static. Additionally, latency was minimal -- InnoSphere proved to be impressive.

Though BuddyTalk is a consumer product, it is not compatible with networks that use proxy servers for Internet connectivity. Additionally, it's not compatible with all firewalls. Since our firewall administration software doesn't allow mapping IP address directly to specific ports, we had to use computers with modems to access the Internet. You may also encounter conflicts if your firewall does support "port mapping" and you've got more than one BuddyTalk user. Their documentation says this, "If you are using it behind a NAT firewall with multiple PCs behind it, note that only ONE BuddyTalk user may be in a phone call at any given time for PC-to-PC calls and Multi-Party Conference calls."

You might say, so what? How many consumers install firewall hardware in their homes? More than you might think, but that's not the point. Potentially, there may be a significant drawback in not being able to communicate through all firewalls. AIM and the current version of MSN Messenger began as completely consumer targeted products as well. Many companies have since adopted them for communications within the office and between offices as well. BuddyTalk utilizes InnoSphere -- its own private VoIP gateway network -- and not just the raw unruly routers of the Internet as other communications tools do. A private network means better quality voice and more robust VoIP tools than other freeware, such as conferencing and PC-to-Phone calling. In short, BuddyTalk is a product that offers more functionality and seemingly better quality than other like products. This could be a very costly missed opportunity, as it could possibly taint InnoMedia's appeal for potential partnerships. Not to mention it prevents end-users from becoming more reliant on its services, if say for example, they could use the BuddyTalk client at work as well as home.

Additionally, on the FAQ section of their Web site, InnoMedia says this, "Unfortunately, BuddyTalk will not be supported when using AOL as the ISP. In our testing of AOL with BuddyTalk, we were not able to get a reasonable voice quality when making PC-to-Phone calls. In addition, we also experienced difficulty in the registration process." According to a recent article, AOL was thought to have approximately 23 million members in the United States alone. That's an extremely large potential customer base that simply cannot use BuddyTalk or its services without switching ISPs. For BuddyTalk to compete with other presence-based services InnoMedia may eventually have to come up with a workaround for this issue.

BuddyTalk is a "4-in-1," voice-enabled Internet communicator. It integrates PC-to-Phone, PC-to-PC, multi-party conferencing and instant messaging in features into one device, all of which are utilizing InnoMedia's InnoSphere network. Multi-party conferencing is an innovative feature and utilization of a private network such as InnoSphere should resultantly provide better voice quality. Its dashboard, designed to mirror a combination of PSTN and cell phone-like controls renders the device easy to use, creating an intuitive GUI with a universal appeal. The documentation additionally, is very good.

InnoMedia has been in business since 1995, which is longer than many other companies in their space. BuddyTalk's product maturity at this stage of development advertises a business with tenure. In speaking with several representatives from InnoMedia, TMC Labs learned that the release of BuddyTalk 2.0 should focus on the interoperation with AOL and alleviation of tricky port mapping behind firewalls. Further, we're told that multiple PCs will also be able to communicate through a firewall simultaneously using release 2.0. Nevertheless, the product at the time of this review -- version 1.0.34 -- has a strong feature set aimed directly at keep people connected through the use of a variety of different methods. Its use of SIP, quality of design, and healthy feature set along with its well-put-together interface and complete documentation have earned it an Editors' Choice award.

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