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AICO Systems TalkPro Voice Over IP Phone
by Robert Sanborn 

As someone who spends a lot of time on the internet, I was excited to take a look at the new Voice over IP technology that is making the rounds. What VOIP does for you is to allow you to make traditional type telephone calls using the internet. I had seen in the past people using microphones and the sound cards on their computers to make calls but had noticed that they always seem to be choppy, difficult to understand, and just not worth the trouble. But this is getting to be big business as what I am beginning to hear is that three years from now, they expect to have 7 million VOIP phones in use. In fact, Cisco Systems claimed to have shipped over a million VOIP phones just in the year up to July 2003. So, is it time for the rest of us to look at what VOIP can do for us? With that in mind, and the fact that I have a good high speed internet connection, after attending their press conference at Comdex this past November, I got a new phone from Aico Systems at www.aicosystems.com.  The model I got was the U-100 Talk Pro phone which connects to your computer via a USB port.  

It is a pretty simple package to open up. You get your USB attached phone which is lightweight and can either sit flat on a desk or mount on the wall with standard wall hooks for a phone, a lightweight hand set with coiled phone cord, and a product package with Product guide, User Manual, Install CD, and a card with your username, temporary password, and phone number.  

To install the package really doesn’t take up much hardware. Windows98 or later supporting USB 1.1, a Pentium II 233 with 32mb ram is all about you need. According to the manual, your internet speed needs to be only 20kb per second or faster which is pretty slow. In fact, I have seen most dial up connections that go faster than 20kb. 

Like most other unusual devices, you need to take a look at the instructions before putting the CD into the drive or plugging in the device. In this case, you plug in the device under Windows XP and it finds it automatically and installs the “Human Interface Device” for you. You also need to make some changes to your sound card and they are pretty good about stepping you through those steps as well. Like most well written packages, the installation is easy, just put in the CD. What I thought was interesting, your choices of languages are English, Chinese (PRC) and Chinese (Taiwan). You get the usual legal agreement and because I was going to make overseas calls, I was interested in what they had to say about the use of the equipment and was quite surprised to find it a simple and short agreement.  You can tell the Chinese roots of the application when I again get to a page that asks me to select my region. Once choice is China, the other is “Other Regions”.    

After this comes a question regarding your network type. You have several choices and in my case, since I am on a local area network and the computer is not directly connected to the cable modem, I picked LAN but it would help if the booklet gave you some description on what your choices should be as it could be confusing for someone using a gateway, router, or other device to get to the internet. Once you restart your computer, you should be ready to go. In my case, my computer started and then restarted on its own with an error message saying do I want Windows to start normally or revert to a prior setting. That made me a bit nervous but I plugged on and the computer started normally with the login screen that pops up for the phone. Enter in the information and a phone window comes up where you can get to all your information such as your account, rates for calls, and to recharge your account. This screen that pops up looks like a phone but you can’t move it to another part of the screen, just minimize or close it. 

All calls you make with your Talk Pro phone are not free except the ones that you make to another Talk Pro user but they are cheap!  China and England are 4 cents a minute, Japan and Australia are 6 cents, and Germany is 11 cents. But not all sites are that cheap, Fiji is 44 cents, Vanuatu is $1.04, Cuba is $1.58 and Antarctica’s area code of 672 is $2.07. The Vatican City is $3.30. So it looks like before you start dialing away, you should check your destination and you can easily do that on their web site. 

So as I kept reading the price charts about the phone, it rings and is my friend Ash from Australia. He also got the TalkPro USB phone from attending the same press conference as I did and I had just emailed him my phone number. So, him over breakfast, and me at 5:pm closing time at the office, had a chance to test the phone and the call was quite clear. I could hear very well every word he said and it did sound just like him. My only complaint is that it was difficult to hear him. The phone has a volume control button but it doesn’t give you any indication as to the volume level. After tinkering, I discovered that there are five levels, with the lowest being the same as hitting the mute button. After our conversation, I looked into the manual a bit more and found where I need to make changes to my sound card settings for Voice and tested it again and it worked just fine.  When the call comes in, or when I make an outgoing call, the TalkPro window pops up on the screen to tell me what number is calling me and how long the call is. When you make a call, it also tells you what your account balance is so if you are calling an expensive site, you might want to update the amount first. To do that, go online and log into your account. What is interesting is that they have you enter your TalkPro phone number and password in and then have a graphic on the screen which you have to enter the number there as well. It keeps you from simply logging in like you would to most other accounts and it says it is secure but I never saw the little secure lock on the bottom of the screen. 

The phones are available online through TalkPro’s store at www.talkpro.net. The USB Phone I got, U-100 is $110, and the Ethernet based R-100 phone is $170. The R Series phone plugs directly into an Ethernet port so you don’t even need a computer to use it. It is a little large to just throw into your travel bag for when you get to someplace with an Ethernet port but I like the idea. For world travelers, you could hopefully look for an Ethernet based phone in a small size. If not, go for the U-100M model sometime later. It still plugs into a USB port on your computer but is in a small travel size.  

I have made quite a few more calls on my TalkPro now that I put a little more money into my account for calls outside the network, and for the most part, these calls have gone through just fine. There have been some nit picky items like one time I heard a high pitch faint hum in the background, and another, someone said my voice seems a little off but that could be the effects of the cold I had. In fact, when I called that first number back from my land line, I still heard that high pitch hum so it wasn’t the TalkPro. Every one of the calls was clear, and I could really hear people well once I adjusted the sound. Once in a while on a call, I felt like it was missing a packet or two as things would kind of jump in the conversation but never really enough to be a problem hearing someone. I think those things happened when both of us were talking at the same time. Probably my only remaining problem is that the phone is so light, that if you move much, the phone slides around the desk and if your desk is cluttered, look out. I think I would like something to attach it to my desk so it doesn’t go anywhere. What really sets these phones apart is the technology inside. They are built with two chips, one is a DSP voice processing processor and the other is a voice correcting chip developed by AICO which is made to improve problems with transmissions and lag times as well as voice quality. Because of this proprietary technology, TalkPro is not like any other VOIP phone and uses its own network and gatekeeper servers. The down side I would report even after more use at this point is that several times on the holiday when I used the phone to try and connect to another TalkPro phone, I could not connect. What would happen is you dial away like normal and then it beeps and you just get dead air. Was it ringing and I couldn’t hear it, I am not sure. Another problem I ran into which was and was not self inflicted was I got one of these “sorry the number is not reachable” messages and had to try again later. What I discovered, is if you enter a number wrong, you get that message. I also discovered, if you enter it correctly, you can also get that message. Take a look at your TalkPro software monitor to see what the message might be telling you. This time, calling a valid number told me it was invalid. Go figure. I do hope that this was just a one time problem with connecting so at this point, I wouldn’t throw away that land line just yet.  Another time when I was talking to my friend Ash on his phone, we lost a lot of packets talking. Again, when I called him back a day or so later, the conversation was just fine.  Now after checking with tech support, I did discover that if the TalkPro phone you are calling doesn’t have the software loaded to receive the call, you will get the unreachable error.  I think they need to work on their error messages but I do have to say that each time I tried to call a land line, the call went through just fine. 

If you want to call someone with a TalkPro phone from a land line, you need to call one of their “Worldpass Virtual Local Numbers” which are basically access numbers, get another dial tone, and then the TalkPro number. If you happen to be near one of these local access numbers which are available on a very limited basis right now, (Chicago, Boston, NYC, and some parts of CA) then there would be no charge. In other words, if the access number in Chicago, 630-948-1037, was a local call to me, then I could call Ash on his TalkPro phone in Australia from a regular land line at no cost to me.  

So far, I am impressed with the technology and the calls I have made and very impressed with the clarity of the calls and with a very competitive rate on the calls made. As easy as it was to set it up, if you happen to travel a lot with your notebook, connect to either the internet via dial up or high speed access now available in so many places, and then just take your TalkPro phone with you. I think that would make life a whole lot easier. One point to remember is that if you decide to get one and you make a lot of calls to a particular person overseas, see if you can get him or her one as well and then your calls to them will cost nothing more. This will certainly be my phone to use for overseas calls. 

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Robert Sanborn is a technology analyst for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at robert@pcll.com

Last Update:06/26/2007

 

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