The NetTalk Duo borrows elements from its competitors, the MagicJack and the Ooma Telo, to offer inexpensive, computer-optional landline-alternative phone service. The Duo can plug into your router for PC-free operation at home, but it can also ride a USB port for dirt-cheap calls on the go. Just be prepared for a few hiccups when you use it.
The Duo's pricing structure echoes the MagicJack's, albeit at slightly higher rates: $70 for the hardware and one year of unlimited local and long-distance service; $30 per year after that. That's still a drop in the bucket compared with landlines and Vonage.
During the initial setup, my Duo seemed unable to register with NetTalk's network--until I reset my router (a step not mentioned in the quick-start guide). After that, I could make and receive calls using my existing Uniden cordless phone system.
To use the Duo with my PC, however, I first had to download and install a USB driver. That's a hassle, especially compared with the MagicJack, which stores its software in memory. Also, at press time, the 64-bit version of the driver was still in beta, resulting in several warning messages as I installed it on my Windows 7 system. Another hassle: Unlike the MagicJack, which plugs directly into a USB port, the Duo requires a cable.
During the number-selection process, NetTalk offered choices reflecting both my area code and my city. But unlike Ooma Telo and MagicJack, it didn't let me choose the last four digits--it simply assigned them.
On the flipside, the Duo offers a few more calling features than either MagicJack or Ooma Basic. In addition to caller ID, call waiting, and voicemail, you get voicemail delivered via e-mail as an audio attachment (Ooma Basic lacks this), free 411 calls, three-way calling (a no-show on MagicJack), and Google Voice-style call forwarding: You can arrange for calls to your Duo number to ring your mobile phone, work phone, and any other numbers you want. Alas, you can't yet port your existing number to the Duo, a limitation that would make me think twice about trading my landline for it.
In my tests with a router connection, the Duo performed flawlessly, delivering loud, clear calls--even while my BitTorrent client was performing some heavy-duty file-sharing. With a PC connection, however, even getting a dial tone was a hit-or-miss proposition--and when it hit, I noticed some static on the line. The scratchy audio may be a beta-driver issue that NetTalk will correct, but for now the MagicJack has the edge as a mobile VoIP option.
NetTalk's toll-free tech support is available seven days a week, and you can also submit a ticket online. When I did so (on a weekday), I received a problem-specific, human-typed (as opposed to canned) response within about 20 minutes.
Because it can plug directly into your router, the NetTalk Duo offers a sizable advantage over the MagicJack. It also offers more calling features and support options. If you're not concerned about keeping your phone number, it could be the cheapy phone service of your dreams.
This story, "NetTalk Duo" was originally published by PCWorld.
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