Softphones Reviewed: NetZero Voice

This is a feature-rich communications application that, among other virtues, brings VoIP to people with dial-up Internet connections.

By Ted Stevenson | Posted Jun 16, 2006
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NetZero Voice is a VoIP service with a difference. Several differences, in fact.

To understand NZ Voice, you need to understand NetZero and its parent company United Online. NetZero began life as a free, ad-supported dial-up Internet service. A series of mergers and acquisitions over a number of years created the umbrella company United Online, which is now a conglomerate of seven Net-based businesses (that includes Classmates.com).

"We have one of the top 100 brands in the country," United Online Sr. Vice President Matt Wisk told VoIPplanet.com. "The NetZero dial-up business is not a great growth opportunity, going forward," he explained. "But it would be a shame if, once you spent all this money to get into the hearts and minds of consumers from a branding perspective, not to leverage that brand and morph that brand into other areas."

NetZero does see voice—among other emerging forms of Internet-based communication—as a growth opportunity. Not only does it have millions of established customers to whom it can market the service very cost-effectively, it has billing, customer service, and telecommunications infrastructures already in place, so its cost of entry is much lower than it would be for many competitors.

Difference: Since its ISP customer base uses dial-up, NetZero's phone application was built to work over dial-up connections as well as broadband. Although not unique, ability to talk over a dial-up connection is rare among the services we've evaluated.

Difference: Since it is a dial-up application, NZ Voice does not (currently) support video.

Similarity/difference: NZ Voice is like most contemporary PC-based VoIP services in that calls between members are free, wherever located. But for PSTN calling, unlike most competitors, NetZero offers billed monthly subscription plans (as well as the more common pre-paid SkypeOut-style minute blocks). There are incentives to adoption of the subscription plans, including free dial-in numbers, and free calling in some instances where pay-as-you-go customers are charged.

Although reluctant to talk explicitly about plans for NetZero Voice, specifically, Whisk did stress the company's strategy of aggressively exploring interesting emerging applications in the VoIP space.

"One of our first entry points into an alternative story around VoIP is a thing called PrivatePhone," he told VoIPplanet.com "—your virtual identity in cyberspace." Built with the cell-phone-only crowd in mind, PrivatePhone is a free DID (direct inward dialing) number—available in most cities and area codes—that you can give out as an alternative to disclosing your cell number (or your home phone, if you have one). Unlike a normal phone number, this one doesn't ring a phone, it just takes voicemail. Yeah, why didn't I think of that?

With its ability to operate over the limited bandwidth of dial-up, its promise of innovative communications applications to come, and the backing of a big, established company, it looks to us as if NetZero Voice is likely to be around for the long term.

The user interface
First thing I noticed about the neat graphical interface is the ad flashing at the bottom. True, it's an ad for the product itself, but it prepares you for one of the essential realities that many NZ Voice users will experience: advertising—not only on the phone application itself, but on the web pages that make up other elements of the overall interface.


Prod interface

This is another legacy of the company's origins as a free, ad-supported Internet service. There is a way to avoid the ads, though. Upgrade to one of the premium subscription plans discussed in detail below.

That issue aside, the phone interface is compact and efficient.

Regular Windows dropdowns at top give access to many tools and features (account balance, call history, setting for voice mail, etc.) To the right are a volume control and a mute button—excellent touches! A message window provides info about new voice messages and missed calls. The central panel toggles between a dialpad and your address book. Centrally located call button, hang up button, and hold button, plus a window displaying the last number called round out the PC-based phone interface.

As mentioned, however, many of the commands in the dropdown menus take you to a web page. One of these is the Message Center, where you interact with your e-mail (you get a free web-mail account when you join, NZ Voice), manage your voicemail, access your address book, and view call logs. Rich e-mail features include configurable junk-mail filtering, a block list, and forwarding. Privacy settings, also configurable from this web page, include call forwarding (available only with subscription-based 'upgrade'), call blocking, and toggling your outgoing caller ID on or off.

As also mentioned, these tools share webpage space with advertising.

All in all, we rate the interface Very Good.

Sound quality
Bearing in mind that this is a subjective evaluation, and that we are not able to exhaustively test these softphone apps, our NZ Voice experience was mixed.

On our initial PC-to-PC session (coast to coast)—over DSL connections on both ends—we experienced repeated fade-outs and even a dropped connection. At its best, audio quality was good, although perhaps not quite as good as the higher-bandwidth competition. (NetZero has engineered the softphone to function in an 8kbps stream.) Although we can't verify this, the difference is likely to be the codec used to squeeze the stream down to that slender size.

An initial PSTN call, using our allotted 10 free minutes (which everyone receives on signup) was rock solid from beginning to end. More about PSTN connectivity below.

On balance, we rate NZ Voice's sound quality as Fair to Good

Conference calling
Three-way calling is a feature of the two premium upgrade plans, discussed in detail below. Since we didn't subscribe to either of the monthly plans, we were unable to test conference calling.

According to NetZero Voice's Help facilities, however, we learned that one cannot initiate both legs of a three-way call. Rather, one can only conference in a third party when s/he calls during a call already in progress. In practice, an IM to that third party saying "Call now!" probably solves the problem, but it is a curious arrangement.

Calling the PSTN
As we mentioned in our introduction, NetZero offers two approaches to buying PSTN connection time. There are two Premium "Upgrade" subscription plans: NetZero Voice 100 ($3.95 per month), which gives you 100 minutes of North American calling, and Unlimited ($14.95 per month), which gives you, well, unlimited North American calling. With both plans, your first month is free. Both plans also provide a free DID, and unlimited free incoming call minutes, as well as call forwarding, call waiting, three-way calling, call blocking, and other features.

The alternative Pay-As-You-Go plan, allows you to buy call-time blocks in $5, $10, and $20 increments. While more flexible, this plan is less feature-rich, and slightly more expensive in some instances. North American calls eat up about 2¢ per minute.

We had some difficulty getting set up with PSTN calling. Electing to go with Pay-As-You-Go (for logistical reasons) we signed up on-line, and clicked to make our first call. Instead of our party, we got a recorded message telling to call an 800 number to verify our purchase. Following our conversation with an agent (for the purposes of verifying our identity), we were advised to "Wait 15 to 30 minutes before making calls" to the PSTN. In fact, the account was not activated. We had to call customer support, days later, but they cheerfully completed the transaction and we were able to proceed.

While it may simply be the luck of the draw, we had a better experience with PC-to-PSTN calling than we did with peer-to-peer. We called cell phones as well as wired home phones. Connections were prompt and we experienced no problems worth mentioning. We were even able to connect across Jupitermedia's corporate firewall, which we were not able to do with many other softphones.

Even factoring in our problem getting set up, we rate NZ Voice's PSTN connectivity Very Good.

Getting help
When you select Help from the softphone's dropdown menu, you are taken to a web page. There, topics are grouped into four categories, Service Topics, Getting Started, Billing Questions, and Troubleshooting—with 'popular' questions and issues linked directly to the page/panel. For each category, there's a link to a complete index of topics covered.

We learned a lot about NetZero Phone just browsing around Help. Explanations are clear and unambiguous and the range of topics and issues addressed seems comprehensive. To supplement the on-line Help files, there is a search facility, and NetZero provides both telephone and e-mail direct support.

We rate NZ Voice's Help as Excellent

Other features
Although they're not all available to all NetZero Voice members, the softphone has more telephony and communications features than any other application we've reviewed.

All members get the flexible, configurable voicemail facility that can be turned on or off. It has a 10 message limit. Voicemails can be accessed directly from the phone interface, or from the web-based Message Center. You can send voicemail alerts to a mobile phone, or to your e-mail box, and you can have voicemails delivered to your e-mail box as sound files. You can also set the number of rings to wait before sending a call to voicemail.

Likewise, a free webmail account (with 1 GB limit) is provided to all members. NetZero's webmail offers both configurable junk mail settings and a blacklist facility to block mail from addresses and domains the user choses.

NZ Voice has a call waiting feature that can be turned on or off. And as with e-mail, users can block calls and/or IMs from anyone they choose, via blacklist.

Premium (monthly subscription) members get a free DID or incoming phone number, so PSTN users can call NetZero Voice. What's more, the user can choose a number that's local to pretty much any area code/city they want. There is no separate charge for this—which is unique among the products we've tested. Even more amazing; both plans have unlimited (free) incoming minutes. We note that NZ Voice 100's $3.95 per month subscription price is roughly equal to the cost of DID alone from other services.

See the Table of Features for a full accounting of the softphone's extras.

(Disclaimer: Aside from basic voicemail and e-mail functionality, we did not test these features.)

Conclusion
What it lacks in elegance of appearance and sound quality, NetZero Voice makes up for in richness of features and modest cost. The fact that it's engineered to work with dial-up Internet connectivity alone will recommend it to the many who still rely on dial-up.

Its $3.95-per-month NetZero Voice 100 plan seems a real bargain, though the jump to almost four times that for Unlimited service seems a bit steep. Still, for those who use the phone a lot—especially with the free incoming PSTN number that can be located anywhere—it's not off the map.

Finally, we like the forward looking spirit of the company, as exemplified by PrivatePhone, and, doubtless, other innovations to come.

Ratings Summary: NetZero Voice
User interface Very Good
Sound quality Fair/Good
Conference calling N/A
PSTN connectivity Very Good
Help facilities Excellent
Overall rating Very Good

See Table of Features   >

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