Multi-Link TeleVoIP Stick

Devices that let you make/take both Skype and POTS calls from a single phone are multiplying. Here's the latest.

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted Sep 7, 2006
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Add Multi-Link Inc., a company in Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the growing list of vendors peddling products that exploit the popularity of Skype, the free PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone voice-over-Internet service.

Multi-Link's TeleVoIP Stick ($100) is designed to integrate Skype with the public switched telephone network (PSTN) so you can use an existing phone for both Skype and regular calls, transfer calls between Skype and PSTN and between a PSTN phone and a PC phone set. It's targeted primarily at home and small office users.

The TeleVoIP Stick works much like the VoSKY Call Center product from Actiontec that we looked at earlier this year. The big advantage with both products is that you can make and take Skype calls on a regular telephone, but the Multi-Link product does it a little differently—and in our testing, not quite as slickly or reliably.

Both the TeleVoIP Stick and the VoSKY Call Center are small boxes with inputs and outputs from both the PSTN and a computer running Skype software. Where the Actiontec product routes outgoing calls by default to the PSTN, however, the Multi-Link unit does it the other way around: unless you tell it you want to use the PSTN, it will route the call via Skype. Both products automatically route incoming Skype calls to the telephone.

The other difference: Where the VoSKY Call Center connects to the PC via a USB port, Multi-Link uses the speaker and microphone ports on the PC's sound card or motherboard audio system. This has some advantages, but also some disadvantages.

Besides the principal benefit of letting you use the same phone set for Skype and PSTN calls, the TeleVoIP Stick offers some cool advanced features. For example, you can forward your PSTN calls to Skype. Unfortunately, you cannot forward them to the same Skype name you're using with the device. It would be useful when you're working away from the office to be able to route PSTN calls to Skype on your laptop. The solution is to open a second Skype account to which you forward the calls, and use that account on your laptop.

You can also, theoretically, forward Skype calls to a PSTN number, including your cell phone, although I could not get this to work. Multi-Link technical support insisted the feature had worked flawlessly in initial product testing, but conceded they were now encountering the same behavior. The issue was still unresolved by the time this story was posted, but it's reasonable to assume it will be fixed soon.

Because you can optionally plug a microphone and speakers into the TeleVoIP Stick, you also have the option of making Skype calls the usual way, using Skype client software on the PC. Even better, you can switch a call back and forth between the PC and the telephone. By right clicking on the Multi-Link icon in the Windows system tray, you can access a mini-menu that gives you an option to toggle back and forth between PC and phone.

Why would you want to do this? You might start a Skype call using the telephone, then realize you need to conference somebody in on a PSTN line. Or somebody else in the office might need to make a call on that phone.

The advanced features could be useful, but basic operation—making and taking calls—is now a little more complicated than it used to be, or than it is with the VoSKY Call Center. With the TeleVoIP Stick, when you pick the phone up to place a call, instead of hearing the familiar phone company dial tone, you hear a musical "PC dial tone" generated by the device software. The Multi-Link product mediates all outgoing and incoming calls, and it assumes you want to place all long distance calls through Skype. How you dial determines how it handles the call.

To call within North America, you dial exactly as you would normally—the numeral 1 plus the ten digit number—and the call is placed as a SkypeOut call (free within North America until the end of this year). To dial outside North America, you will need SkypeOut credits. You dial 00—a special Skype access code rather than the usual international access code—then the number, followed by #.

You can set up any regularly called number as a speed dial in the Multi-Link software. This is also, as with the Actiontec device, the only way you call Skype contacts PC-to-PC using the telephone. The software lets you add speed dial contacts with either a regular number (in effect a SkypeOut number) or a Skype name. To place a call, dial the two-digit speed dial number, followed by #.

In all cases when making a call through Skype with the telephone, you will hear the distinctive Skype call initiation tone before the call is placed, and the Skype client software pops up on your PC screen.

For a local call, you dial seven digits (or ten) and the TeleVoIP Stick automatically recognizes it as a local call and passes it to the PSTN. If ten-digit dialing for local calls has arrived in your area, you'll have to change the default setting in the Multi-Link control software so the device recognizes ten digits as a local call.

If you don't want to use Skype for a long distance call—because Skype connections are poor that day or you want to make a toll-free call—press *9 on the PSTN phone keypad and the TeleVoIP Stick will give you phone company dial tone.

Receiving calls is a little simpler, theoretically. When the system is set up properly, incoming calls from both the PSTN and Skype make the telephone ring. You pick up and say hello. Simple. No more groping for your Skype headset and mouse-clicking to connect the call. However, this didn't work properly until, with help from Multi-Link technical support, I changed settings in the Skype software to prevent Skype automatically answering calls rather than waiting for me to answer.

There was also a problem initially with incoming PSTN calls. The TeleVoIP Stick wouldn't pass the calls to the telephone. Other phones on the same line elsewhere in the house would ring and could be answered, but the telephone attached to the device didn't ring, and if you picked it up, it gave dial tone (the special PC dial tone).

It turns out this was because the TeleVoIP Stick doesn't support two-line phones. I had already noticed that with the phone line plugged in to the telephone through the device, the second line was no longer active. When I connected a single-line phone, it worked properly for incoming PSTN calls.

Setting up the TeleVoIP Stick is a little more complicated than it might be. There are seven ports on the box. At one end, you plug in a phone line and a telephone. At the other end, there are inputs that connect to the line-in and microphone ports on the PC—for sending voice to and from the PC sound system on Skype calls—and outputs that optionally connect to a PC speaker and microphone or PC telephone headset. Plus you need to plug it into a power supply.

The VoSKY Call Center, by comparison, has three ports—USB, phone line, and handset—and draws power over the USB connection.

Installing the control software was for the most part uneventful. When the program launches for the first time, it goes through a mostly automated test procedure to set up the speakers, microphone, phone and the TeleVoIP Stick—then opens its main window. In my installation, it completed the test procedure, but then failed to open the main program. Not a big deal, but it might confuse inexperienced users.

Bottom line: If you're a very Skype-centric user and you're prepared to be patient with minor tech support issues, the Multi-Link product could be just the ticket. For my money, the Actiontec product makes more sense because it assumes, correctly in my case, that I'm going to want to make most long distance calls on the PSTN. It doesn't force me to do anything differently unless I'm actually making a Skype call.

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