We've all seen the ads for the Magic Jack, the device that promises to free us from our monthly phone bills forever. These days, with cell phones, a lot of us have given up landlines, so spending money making long distance calls isn't the issue. But since we're a bunch who likes to yammer, the minutes do seem to fly by. (I've certainly paid my share of overage charges.)
Turns out, the Magic Jack, which costs $19.95 a year, generally does keep up with its pitch, reports my friend Shannon who has had one for several months. She and her husband were on a mission to trim their monthly bills and he suggested the gizmo that works by routing phone calls through your computer, using your Internet connection.
Here's how it works, she said. You plug the Magic Jack -- which resembles a flash drive -- into your computer and you plug your phone into your computer, too. (When you register, you can tell the company where you live so you'll be assigned a phone number with the area code you want.) Shannon said you dial using a window that appears on your screen -- not through your phone handset.
The trick? If you want to move around your home while you talk, you carry the whole mess with you.
"We have to decide if we're going to make this call and settle ourselves accordingly," Shannon said. If your computer is off, your calls go directly to voice mail. You'll be e-mailed if you have a message, which you can listen to via iTunes.
She said there are no more worries about long distance calls, or a phone bill at all since the Magic Jack works just fine for local calls, too. But setting up the device and getting it to work smoothly took some effort.
"There were a lot of starts and stops. We couldn't figure out how to get our voice mail set up. There isn't a person we can contact if we're having problems. (Everything is answered online only.) We would have dropped calls. There were times when they could hear us and we couldn't hear them or the reverse," she said.
And her brother, who lives in Italy, can't dial cell phones where he is. He gets her voice mail if the computer is off and she doesn't know he's calling, since she doesn't leave the computer on all day.
But the end result, she said, is that the phone bill is really gone.
"We don't have to worry about long distance at all. It's very cool," she said. "We have voice mail -- and we don't have any telemarketers calling."
UPDATE: A reader named Dollie informs me that if you have a cordless phone, you're free of your computer once you make a call. "You can carry the phone all over the house and outside and don't
have to settle down by the computer," she says. Thanks Dollie!