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(Updated) Review: netTALK Duo Underwhelms on Voice Quality

I really really wanted to like the netTALK Duo. But the deficient voice quality sunk this otherwise promising offering.

(Note Dec. 15, 2010: I got my netTALK to work! However, I still have major reservations - and suggestions for netTALK's makers...)
(Note Nov. 25, 2010: I received a number of comments and a call from netTALK's technical support within hours of my post yesterday. However, despite making the suggested changes and diligently powercycling my router, it still doesn't seem to work. New details in italics below)
(Original note: this post strays a little from the usual commentary on enterprise mobility. Apologies in advance.)

I really wanted to like the netTALK Duo. The offering seemed awesome - technically similar to the wildy-popular MagicJack, but because of its ability to plug straight into your router, it avoids the un-green downside of having to keep your desktop PC on all the time.

Also, its faceless creators had taken the high road to the MagicJack CEO's very Larry Ellison-like lambasting of netTALK earlier this year.

If netTALK's upfront cost was a little higher ($69.95, including 1 free year of service) than other VoIP competitors, so what? At just $29.95 per subsequent year (or $2.50/month), netTALK would let me earn back my ROI against Vonage or MJ within months.

If it worked, that is. I was skeptical, of course. But the reviews, even the recent ones (netTALK had an earlier-generation device called the TK6000), were overwhelmingly positive. Read PCWorld, Laptop Magazine, and FatWallet. Sure, they pointed out the tricky setup (routers need to be powered on and off in the proper order), but all said that with the aid of telephone-based customer support, problems were solved.

I ordered my DUO on October 18 and received it just 4 days later. It took a week for netTALK to get my number functional because they couldn't find my home (a new development in the East Bay of San Francisco) in their map database in order to register it for E-911. I don't fault netTALK for that. So I was using the DUO for about 3 weeks.

Simultaneous to getting my DUO, I bought a new D-Link DIR-655 wireless/wired 4-port router. My DUO wasn't actually plugged directly into my DIR-655 - it was plugged into a 85 Mbps NetGear Ethernet-over-Powerline switch in the kitchen that was linked to the D-Link router. I figured this should be ok - while it adds an extra gateway in the network, the bandwidth seemed plenty fast.

Initially, the call quality was merely bad, static-y and echo-y. Eventually, it settled into a pattern of: strong voice quality upon the initial hellos, then delays turned to lengthy echoes, and then the connection would go dead, all within 30 seconds. (It appears that when the line appears dead to me, the person on the other line can hear me yammering away, at least for a little while. I don't hear anything.)

netTalk's sparse online FAQ had some suggestions, but wasn't ultimately helpful. (nor were the suggestions in the online forum that netTALK's technical support walked me through). My experiments (note, I repeated these multiple times, strictly following the power-on/off directions of netTALK) led me to these conclusions:

1) It wasn't the flaky connections of our outside callers. While reception for my iPhone is atrocious in my house (we are at the wrong end of a small hill), I tried multiple calls from my work telephone. And of course the calls from my dad and mother-in-law - the main reason we got the netTALK after deciding to cut our landline - kept ending in unwanted dead silence.

2) It probably wasn't the D-Link router's settings. As per netTalk's suggestions at its FAQ site, I upgraded the firmware and also removed all filtering on the DUO by putting it in DMZ mode. No help. (Within hours of posting this review, I got a call from Carlos Figarola of netTalk's technical team based in Miami, Florida. Carlos walked me through how to turn off two settings in the D-Link, along with hardcoding a new primary/secondary DNS (Domain Name Server). I have tried eight phone calls since then. Only the first one lasted a full minute. With the others, the line appeared to go dead within 30 seconds). Of course, it is likely that it is the router itself (see this list of routers that play well/badly with the netTalk DUO). But if it's a matter of D-Link and netTALK not playing well together, it's the netTALK that's more expendable, especially as I have no guarantee that other brands of routers would have similar problems.

Oh DUO, you didn't overpromise but boy did you under-deliver for me.

3) It wasn't my NetGear switch. I tried plugging the DUO straight into one of the D-Link's Ethernet ports. No dice.

4) It wasn't my cordless phone. Thought I knew my new Panasonic DECT 6.0 phone operated at a different frequency (1.9 GHz) than my D-Link router (2.4 GHz), I still swapped it out for two different corded phones. No dice.

5) It wasn't the misdirection of netTALK's technical support. I waited for 30 minutes last Saturday for someone to pick up but gave up. (And Carlos was very helpful and polite on the phone, when he called after my posted review. But as of Nov. 25, the DUO was still down.)

6) It wasn't the speed of my Internet connection. According to VoIP Speed Test, my line registers as good to high quality on all indicators.

I briefly considered the paranoid possibility that Comcast was imposing some maximum QoS whenever my DUO was active, but couldn't find any mentions on Google about this. If this was a move to encourage me to switch to the Comcast VoIP service, it didn't help - I've gone back to Vonage, which I used for 5 years in my home office to 99.5% great results.

I just installed Vonage - I'm subscribing to their 200-minute Lite service -  and the connection seems great, with only minimal delays between the speakers.

I'm willing to believe that if you avoid the known misbehaving routers/modems, the DUO will work great. However, it would've been great if I could've seen that warning on netTALK's site before I ended up spending $100 on the wrong router plus lots of frustrating hours trying to fix this (and placate my skeptical wife). Meanwhile, I'm going to attempt to return my netTALK to see if I can get at least some of my $69.95 back. I will keep you apprised on the outcome.


Was your experience with the netTALK DUO better or worse than mine?