Putting a Face to the Voice
You've got a big dilemma, and you could really use some advice from dad -- or better yet, grandma. It's not just what she says, but how she says it -- the lines around her eyes as she smiles or the way she tilts her head at the first hint of malarkey. Trouble is, she's in another state, 1,500 miles away. So you miss out -- that is, unless you have the Packet8 VideoPhone from 8x8 (EGHT).
For those who want not only to speak to but also to see that special person at the other end of the phone, I've included a look at the Packet8 VideoPhone as the last in a series of reviews of Internet-based calling services (see BW Online 1/4/06, "Verizon's VoiceWing Flies").
The VideoPhone has a lot going for it, beginning with setup. It literally took two minutes. The instructions were fairly clear, requiring me to plug in a couple of cords. Then, when I turned the phone on, it was working. Bingo. Far quicker than with many of the competing voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone services.
That done, I found myself in front of a contraption the size of a small fax machine, with a 5-inch, color liquid-crystal-display screen that could be tilted up or down for more convenient viewing. And just above the LCD was a small camera aimed right at me. As intimidating as that was, I soon realized that the Packet8's VideoPhone is just like a regular phone in a lot of ways (a likely relief for technophobes), with cool features sprinkled in for the more tech-savvy. One of my few quibbles is that the Packet8 doesn't offer more of the cool features I found with rival services.
The Packet8 VideoPhone's design offers something for everyone. Its color and sleek shape are reminiscent of an Imperial battleship from Star Wars. And its buttons are large and well lit, making them easy to handle. The menus and buttons are as straightforward as they come: One button says "Phonebook," for instance. Press it, and you can immediately view your contacts list on the display. Then, with another push of a button, you can have the phone dial a number directly from the phonebook.
The camera-shy can easily disable the video function and simply use the VideoPhone as a regular phone, or a one-way video viewing device, which can come in handy during those bad-hair days. You simply press a "Privacy" button, and the party on the other end will only see a black screen.
But when you do use the video capability (why else buy a video phone, right?), you'll find it's pretty good, though you'll need to adjust the quality. Without some tinkering, the video was nowhere near the TV-like image Packet8 says it can provide. (I tested the device on a DSL connection.)
Luckily, the VideoPhone lets you improve video quality with the push of a few buttons, such as one that lets you adjust the bandwidth on your Internet connection and another that lets you adjust the screen's brightness. Should you take the easy route and make no adjustments, you'll still get decent quality video, but it may be a bit jerky.
Until December, you could use the phone's video capabilities only to communicate with people who have the same-model VideoPhones. But new software lets VideoPhone connect with any PC with a mounted camera.
VideoPhone also boasts several video-management features that a typical Webcam lacks. A "view" button lets you see the same video the other party sees. When I used it, I discovered I was showing only the top half of my face, but I was able to correct it with a quick tilt of the screen. In the back of the VideoPhone are several ports for plugging in video and still cameras, letting you televise a digital photo of yourself or video of your last trip to the slopes, rather than a live feed.
A few things spoiled my Packet8 experience a bit. The VideoPhone fails to take full advantage of the flexibility of the Web. Several services I tested send you e-mail notifications when new voice mail arrives. Not Packet8.
And Packet8's Web site, which customers can use for managing accounts, was difficult and unhelpful. When I logged on, all I could find at first was my billing information. You can't manage your phone book or view a log of calls you made online, as you can do with other services. All of that has to be done via your video phone. And let me tell you, typing in names and phone numbers with a phone keypad isn't fun.
It took me several minutes to find a section of the Web site where I could access features that can be managed online. You can use the site to set up your phone to forward calls to a different number or to block your phone number when you make calls. Most other VoIP services offer loads of other features. One more drawback to bear in mind: As with other VoIP services, if your power goes off, your VideoPhone will die.In the end, what Packet8 VideoPhone lacks in features, it makes up for in price (about $20 a month for unlimited local and long-distance calling, compared with the $53 that the average U.S. phone user spends on traditional phone service). And don't forget the most important feature: video. All the better to see you with.