Softphones Reviewed: Gizmo Project

This robust, second-generation softphone reflects an open-source outlook and provides a rich feature set.

By Ted Stevenson | Posted May 19, 2006
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Gizmo Project, launched in July 2005 by SIPphone, is a SIP-based VoIP service, the brain-child of Michael Robertson of Linspire and MP3.com fame. It originated as a softphone to be made available to SIPphone customers, but it appears to have taken on a life of its own.

Coming to market after the advent of Skype has been both an advantage and a disadvantage for Gizmo Project. The disadvantage is that Skype has such a huge following it may prove difficult to dislodge a significant chunk of its market share. The advantage is that Gizmo Project's architects can (and do) benefit from Skype's experience, adding useful features Skype doesn't offer.

Some of the more interesting and appreciated innovations Gizmo Project brings to the party are call recording, voicemail-to-email, and an ingenious twist on the virtual incoming phone number: an incoming number that rings both at your PC and your choice of a cell phone or a landline!

Downloading Gizmo Project from the website takes less than a minute over a high-speed network connection. Your mileage may vary, depending on your connection. Versions support Windows (2000 and XP), Mac OS X, and four flavors of Linux (including, not surprisingly, Linspire).

We had a mixed experience installing Gizmo Project. Our first attempt was on a Jupitermedia Corp. computer behind the company firewall. The download and install went quickly, but the software was unable to connect to SIPphone's servers across the firewall, so the client never loaded. Corporate firewalls appear to be a serious issue for softphones in general; clearly they are for Gizmo Project. For a detailed discussion of modifying firewalls for Gizmo Project see this webpage.

At our home office (with a personal firewall) installing and setting up the software were quick and uneventful—we're talking another couple of minutes tops. On registering, you choose a login name, but you are also assigned a SIP phone number that lets others on 'peered' SIP networks dial you directly.

The user interface
The core of Gizmo Project's interface is the Address Book (buddy list), which occupies the center of the instant-messenger-like application. (Interesting aside: With Gizmo Project, the slick, high-design version is for the Macintosh. The current Windows interface is quite plain by comparison).

As with most other peer-to-peer softphone services, the SIPphone network lets you populate your phonebook by searching its registry. Alternatively, you can enter information by hand, the method you'll have to use for non-Gizmo contacts. Once your Gizmo contacts have been located on/by the network, their presence (online status) is indicated by an icon on the left side of the panel. (Contacts you reach through the PSTN, obviously, don't have presence info.)

There are lots of ways of placing a Gizmo Project call. You can type a Gizmo name or a phone number into the top field and click the green 'off-hook' button on the right. You can double click a buddy on the list, and a couple of other ways as well. In any case, there's a Subject line, exactly like the Subject line in an email client, in which you can—well, enter a call subject. This simple device adds a really useful dimension to the program's overall functionality.


Prod interface
Macintosh interface

Placing the call (by any of the above methods) pops out another panel (referred to as the call 'drawer') that displays all relevant information about the call, including whatever information is in the recipient's profile, an enlarged version of whatever photo or image they may have entered into their profile, a call-quality monitor, a duration timer, a recent-call history, a 'Map It' button, and controls for recording the call.

The folks at SIPphone are very proud of Map It, which shows you your location and that of the person you're connected with, but it struck us as little more than a gizmo. Call recording, on the other hand, seems potentially highly useful. To record, just click the record button. (There's also a Hold button, to pause recording, and a Mute button, to deactivate your microphone for any or all of the call.) When the call is completed, the recording is dropped on your desktop, bearing the date and the SIP phone number of the person you called.

To IM someone in your phonebook, click the green IM button on the right-hand side of their entry. The message thread pops up in a separate panel, very much like any number of other IM clients.

A dialpad expedites the calling of regular phone numbers, and sports—another gizmo in this reviewer's opinion—buttons for a number of sound effects that can be added to your phone experience—again, high gizmosity, but, well. . . .

Overall, the interface surfaces a large number of features and is well worked out. We rate it Excellent.

Sound quality
Like Skype, Gizmo Project uses Global IP Sound's VoiceEngine technology—with the same generally excellent results.

With Gizmo Project, we never experienced the fade and jitter problems we sometimes had with Skype, working behind an enterprise firewall—but then we weren't able to get Gizmo Project running behind the firewall.

Using a high quality headset, Gizmo Project's sound is spacious and three-dimensional, with much more presence than provided with any standard telephone (which deliberately throttles down the acoustic spectrum of calls to save bandwidth).

We rate Gizmo Project's sound Very Good

Conference calling
We were surprised to learn that Gizmo Project does not use peer-to-peer techniques for its conferencing capabilities. Rather, it uses a novel server-based technique, which produced excellent results. Actually, Gizmo Project offers two distinct server-based conferencing facilities, one that it runs itself, and another in partnership with FreeConferenceCall.com. Both are free to registered Gizmo members.

The SIPphone-operated bridge is accessed through the 222 area code. The conference host simply picks any number within this block—say 222-345-6789—and IMs it to the other participants. Each dials the number and they're all connected. It's as simple as that. We tested this solution in a four-way call and found it worked flawlessly. Sound was excellent and there were no connection delays.

According to Gizmo's Knowledgebase page How many people can conference call at once? sound begins to get dodgy with about 10 conference participants. However if everybody Mutes their Gizmo phone while they're not speaking, that total rises to nearly 30 (28 participants in 11 countries, to be precise).

To use FreeConferenceCall.com, you'll need to register (there's a link to the registration page on Gizmo Project's Conference tab). Once registered, you get a dial-in number and access code, which you can distribute to your fellow conferees. FreeConferenceCall.com can accommodate as many as 96 participants at a time. To all intents and purposes, this is unlimited, cost free conference calling.

We rate Gizmo Project's conference calling Excellent.

Calling the PSTN
Like other free peer-to-peer phone services, Gizmo Project—financially—is about selling connectivity to the traditional phone network. Only the name is different. Gizmo members purchase Call Out time in blocks of $10 or more, and their PSTN calling time is metered.

Two things stood out for us about our Gizmo Project Call Out experience. First our account was credited within minutes of signing. (To be fair, we used a different payment method—debit card—than we did with Skype.) Second, the cost is only 1¢/min.—about half of what competing providers are charging:

Quality of PSTN calls made with Gizmo was fine. We experienced no degradation in our (admittedly limited) test calling.

Your Call Out balance is displayed on the Home page (one of the main tabs on the softphone interface) as well as on the member page of the Gizmo Project website—along with a complete log of recent activity.

We rate Gizmo Project's PSTN connectivity Excellent.

Getting help
Gizmo's basic approach to customer support takes the form of an online Knowledgebase. It doesn't appear to be as voluminous as Skype's, but it is perhaps a bit better organized, and seems to cover all the important bases. And if you can't find an answer to your question by wandering around, the Knowledgebase is searchable.

The Knowledgebase is supplemented by a Troubleshooter—which not only led me quickly to the probable cause of my problem (the firewall, as mentioned above), it provided a link where I could submit a 'support ticket'—a query about the difficulty I was trying to resolve. Within two hours after submitting a ticket, I had exchanged two rounds of email with a real, knowledgeable human being, and knew both the source of my problem, and what might be done to alleviate it.

As you might expect, there is a Gizmo Project Forum. It is subdivided into five logically thought out sections, and appears to be active. I happen to know that SIPphone's technical staff is active on the forum. It's not just users talking to other users.

We rate Gizmo Project's Help facilities Excellent.

Additional issues
One of the most important things about Gizmo Project is that it uses the Session Initiation Protocol—SIP—as its signaling protocol. Why is this significant? SIP is an industry standard that is being adopted more and more widely every day. This, in turn, means interoperability.

Specifically, SIPphone's SIP registries are integrated ('peered') with those of quite a number of other SIP-based services and organizations (listed here). You can dial users of those services—for free—if you know the number. (You can't necessarily look them up, as you can Gizmo Project members, though.)

Furthermore, if you know a recipient's Universal Resource Identifier (URI), you can call any SIP user, anywhere in the world, whether or not their network peers with SIPphone's. The Gizmo Knowledgebase tells you how to construct your URI from your SIP phone number and some other domain information (here.

Thanks to another standard protocol, Gizmo Project users can exchange IMs with Google Talk users. Phone calling with Google Talk is in the works.

SIPphone's DID (direct inward dialing) equivalent of SkypeIn is Call In. Numbers are available in a large number of U.S. cities (we didn't count them), and in the U.K., Paris, and Madrid. They can be purchased by the quarter or the year.

But SIPphone has gone a step farther, coming up with an offering—called Area775—that will ring both your Gizmo Project phone, and any other landline or cell phone you designate. Read about it here. Users have the option of paying a flat $2.00 charge every time they answer a call on the non-Gizmo phone, or of paying a modest monthly fee. [Note: It has come to our attention that, as of early June, 2006, Area775 is not working reliably with Gizmo Project 2.0.]

Conclusion
Our dominant impression of Gizmo Project is that it does more than other softphones (at least the ones we've reviewed so far) to broaden the reach of telephony, to take advantage of related computer-based technologies, and to embrace the 'open' spirit of the Internet.

Basing the communication on SIP is forward-looking and ensures an ever-widening pool of potential communicants, worldwide.

Including auxiliary services we've come to associate (and expect) with business phone systems—for example both outgoing and incoming voicemail (the latter delivered via your email account), call forwarding, and at least rudimentary 'follow-me' functionality—moves us in the direction of full-blown PBX-style telephony.

Integrating ancillary technologies such as MP3 audio recording, mapping, and server-based conferencing make Gizmo Project a more useful tool.

We were impressed.

Ratings Summary: Gizmo Project
User interface Excellent
Sound quality Very Good
Conference calling Excellent
PSTN connectivity Excellent
Help facilities Excellent
Overall rating Excellent

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