Since moving to DC, my mobile phone had been my only phone. This generally worked out okay, but always had its downsides — I had to pay attention to minutes; everyone knew that if I didn’t answer, it was because I didn’t want to (not because I wasn’t around, since I always had my phone); talking on a mobile phone just doesn’t have the same call quality as a traditional phone; and there always seemed to be small spots where reception was less-than amazing.
Last month, that situation changed when I received my Ooma. The idea is this: you pay once for the Ooma VoIP unit ($399 right now), and never pay subscription fees for unlimited domestic calling. The Ooma hub, like most consumer VoIP devices, plugs into your network connection and into your phone. You can buy additional “scouts” for $40 that will allow you to connect other phones in your house to the Ooma system. Though it doesn’t apply to me, you can also connect your own bare-bones landline to Ooma, which will ensure that you can place calls during power outages and guarantees a real 911 experience.
What you get with an “ooma line” is basically what you get with two fully-featured landlines. Call waiting, caller ID, three-way calling, voicemail, and unlimited domestic calling are all features you generally expect from a $40-50/month landline plan, and you get all of those. Additionally, the voicemail is accessible anywhere you have a web browser through Ooma’s website, and you really have two lines. If you receive a second call while you’re on the line, you can either pick it up via call waiting, or the call will ring any other phones connected via scouts, where someone else can pick it up concurrently. If someone is talking on the first line, all other phones have the option of picking up on the same line or picking up the second line and making a second call.
VoIP generally gets a bad rap, with complaints about call quality being the major gripe. I haven’t experienced any of this with Ooma. The calls feel exactly the same as if I were using a landline, and all of the features work perfectly as well. There is no appreciable delay or latency while on calls, and I haven’t heard a single moment of garbled audio. I tested the system both from my office and from my home, and it had no problem navigating either firewall for both incoming and outgoing calls, and took just moments to set up.
To add to all this, the Ooma product itself is quite well done. The scouts and hub all act like traditional answering machines, where you can play messages without dialing into voicemail, trashing or saving them as you like. They also allow you to select a line for calling, forward an incoming call to voicemail, or turn on a privacy mode that forwards all calls to voicemail instantly.
The online features of Ooma (through the Ooma website) are pretty nice, too. In addition to being able to listen to voicemail from “any” modern web browser with flash (iPhones, of course, need not apply), Ooma can notify you via email or SMS when you receive a new voicemail. This has already come in handy a few times when we’ve gotten a message during the day and were able to respond before getting home and finding out we had a message (though we also have a good excuse if we don’t respond!).
Given that the service life of the Ooma unit is 3 years, you’re essentially paying no more than $11/month for the hub, plus $1.11 per month for each scout. The longer that Ooma unit lasts, the less you’d effectively be paying. For most people who have a fully-featured landline, the Ooma unit would be paid for within a year, at which point you would be in the black from then on out. For those who have mobile plans with a lot of minutes, and use a decent number of them while at home, this could allow you to drop down a notch or two, and the unit would pay for itself in a similar amount of time.
I have to make at least one critical remark: Ooma has a strange dial tone, which is basically like a regular dial tone on acid — add a ring modulator and the sound of wind to a normal dial tone, and you might have the idea. That’s not necessarily bad, but when the connection is made at the beginning of a call, there’s a small fleeting echo of the tone audible to both parties. It occasionally prompts the other person to ask what it was, at which point you tell them it’s because you have an Ooma. Good marketing, but kinda cheesy. It’s not disruptive, and most people don’t ask, but I should mention it.
Obviously, I’m pretty thrilled with how it’s worked so far. I’ve told my parents to replace their line with an Ooma setup, and I think they are actually going to do it, keeping their landline on a minimal (think $7/month or so) plan for the 911 and the old phone number, since Ooma can’t port phone numbers (yet) without you keeping the old line. If you could stand to save some on your phone service, or want an inexpensive way to have a landline in your home, it’s probably worth a shot.
And no, I’m not being paid for this review ;)