The shipping box also contains a bundle of documentation neatly packaged inside a single envelope marked "Open this first!" The two guides inside the envelope provide markings on the cover indicating which should be used first and which second. The first guide steers you through the installation process for the included hardware: a Linksys RT31P2 broadband router with built-in Quality of Service (QoS), a feature that balances voice and data traffic over a network. (Head over to our Performance section for more information on how the router fared in CNET Labs' tests.) If you already have a router, the guide explains how to replace it with the RT31P2; alternately, you can call a toll-free tech-support number for details on how to use the two devices together.
After the Linksys router is up and running, you crack open the second guide to learn about using the service. Step one is to launch AOL and type in the keyword callways, which brings up the call-management interface that AOL (like Vonage) has dubbed the dashboard. This window serves as the main control panel for accessing and altering the service's many features. Its orderly layout lets you quickly locate the feature you seek rather than forcing you to hunt around through a jumble of information.
In the event that its extremely detailed guides aren't enough to get you going, AOL rounds out the installation process with a bookmark-size quick-tips sheet, which explains yet again how to get to the dashboard, make and receive calls, access voicemail, and use other main features.AOL offers three monthly residential rate plans for its Internet Phone Service. The basic $18.99 Local Plan includes unlimited local calls and 4-cents-per-minute long-distance calls within the United States and Canada. The intermediate $29.99 Unlimited Plan covers the costs of all calls within the United States and Canada. Lastly, the $34.99 Global Plan provides the same terms as the Unlimited Plan, plus reduced rates on international calls. Specific international rates depend on the country you're calling. For example, calls to the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, and Iraq cost 2, 3, 4, and 27 cents per minute, respectively. AOL isn't geared toward businesses, so it's no surprise that the company doesn't offer corporate rate plans.
Compared with those of other Internet phone services, AOL Internet Phone Service's costs are high--especially considering the inflated price you pay for the AOL subscription itself. For example, Vonage--another fairly expensive service--charges $24.99 for unlimited U.S. and Canadian calls, while BroadVoice charges $19.95 for the same.
To place a call, you can simply pick up the landline phone that you connected to your router during installation and start dialing; click one of the contact numbers you've stored in your dashboard or type in a number via the dashboard. A status window then appears onscreen, informing you that the call is in progress. Another incoming status window identifies callers--a boon for screeners. Unanswered incoming calls go to your AOL voicemail, where you can screen them through your computer speakers and answer them midmessage if you have a change of heart. You can instruct your voicemail to e-mail your voice messages to your AOL in-box as audio-file attachments, or you can pick up messages via a toll-free voicemail number. When you call the voicemail-retrieval number, in addition to listening to your voicemail messages, you even have the option of having a computer-generated voice read your e-mail messages to you. You can record voice replies to e-mail delivered in the form of audio attachments. If you want to record a reply to a voicemail that's in your in-box, you'll need to know the recipient's e-mail address.
AOL Internet Phone Service's list of additional calling features includes forwarding, blocking, waiting, three-way, and emergency-911 calling. But keep in mind that if you use the Internet Phone Service as your only phone line, and your Internet connection or power goes down, you'll be unable to reach emergency services.We judge a VoIP service's performance on how calls sound under baseline conditions, as well as during data uploads and data downloads. The overall weighted average is based on calls made under these three conditions. Baseline conditions are given the highest weight of 66 percent; audio quality during data uploads and data downloads each counts for 17 percent of the weightings. The scale for the voice-quality ratings is from 0 to 10, with a perfect score of 10 equaling our reference analog connection.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Overall weighted average||All PCs off||During download||During upload|