Phone Answering and Automation Systems

Without a doubt, e-mail is an efficient and indispensable tool for doing business. But much communication is still conducted the old-fashioned way: by telephone. Two new products—Ovolab’s Phlink 1.4.2 and Parliant’s PhoneValet Message Center 2.0a—attempt to combine the phone’s ubiquity with the power of OS X technologies such as voice recognition and speech synthesis, essentially turning your Mac into a digital answering machine. These devices can not only take messages but also take orders, allowing you (and others) to call in and remotely control your Mac. A cursory glance at their feature lists leaves the impression that these products are similar, but hands-on testing reveals some significant differences.

Installation is easy. Both packages include an iPod-size hardware device paired with proprietary software. All you need is an available USB 1.1 or 2.0 port and an analog phone line with touch-tone service (multiple phone lines require additional devices). Caller ID is optional, but it’s necessary if you want to take advantage of many of the devices’ advanced features, such as announcing who’s calling and caller-specific phone-tree menus.

PhoneValet requires OS X 10.1.5 or later, and Phlink requires OS X 10.2 or later (we conducted our tests using OS X 10.3.4).

Phlink ships with a cursory seven-page, text-only PDF manual that provides an overview of the product’s capabilities but lacks details on how to perform different functions. By contrast, PhoneValet’s 33-page printed user guide includes numerous screenshots that clearly explain how to implement various features.

Take a Message

At its most basic, each product transforms your Mac into a digital answering machine with personalized greetings (sound files, voice recordings, or an OSXMacinTalk voice reading text you select) and individual mailboxes. PhoneValet offers a general greeting, and each of its ten mailboxes can be programmed to play a separate greeting after the caller presses the touch-tone phone key that corresponds to a mailbox number. Phlink is more flexible than PhoneValet in that its caller-specific greetings can be customized, but the interface you must use to do this is unintuitive.

PhoneValet has a user-friendly interface for reviewing the details of outgo-ing and incoming calls, and it manages callers’ messages. Phlink doesn’t track outgoing calls. Messages recorded from incoming calls are indicated in the program’s cluttered log, but you must go to the Finder and manually open a file within a designated folder to play those messages. And Phlink doesn’t indicate which messages are old and which messages are new.

If you subscribe to Caller ID services, either program will pop up a translucent window displaying incoming-caller information. The ability of these devices to accurately identify incoming calls, however, is dependent on information provided by your phone company. PhoneValet’s integrated phone book makes it easy to add a missing name, so future calls from that number will be properly identified. Phlink requires that you create a matching entry in Apple’s Address Book and use a lookup script.

With both programs, incoming calls can be announced by a MacinTalk voice, available in the Speech preference pane. Incoming calls will wake a sleeping Mac, but the Caller ID information can’t be captured as your Mac awakens. Both programs also have the useful ability to send incoming messages as e-mail attachments (they use 3GPP encoding, which can compress a 60-second recording to less than 100K)—an excellent way to stay in touch when you’re on the road.

Controlling Actions

The real power of these devices is demonstrated by incoming callers’ ability to control functions on the Mac via telephone. PhoneValet allows you to assign AppleScripts to run when a caller presses designated numeric codes on a touch-tone phone. PhoneValet also provides sample scripts for reading current iCal events, reporting local weather conditions, and playing sound files, and additional scripts are available online. Similarly, Phlink can respond to callers’ touch-tones by playing sound files, reading text files, and launching AppleScripts. You can designate voice messages to be played for specific callers and create scripts that restart troublesome servers.

There are two significant differences between Phlink and PhoneValet when it comes to customizing how callers can control the Mac remotely via telephone. Phlink provides caller-specific options, which are more versatile and secure than allowing all callers to access the same set of controls. For example, general callers are greeted by a phone tree, but when the system recognizes an incoming call from your cell phone, it can access a separate set of server-administration options. The one-size-fits-all approach of PhoneValet, on the other hand, leaves the door open to a security breach unless you include caller-validation checks within scripts.

The second substantive difference is in how you program the devices. PhoneValet has a polished interface for creating codes and assigning or testing scripts. With Phlink, you’re on your own in the Finder. Phlink works by opening files that reside in a designated folder, and it relies on file names to determine what to open. For example, to play a personalized message for a specific caller, you create a sound file named “greeting” with the specified phone number for this greeting appended to the sound-file name (say, “greeting4155551234”). If you want to initiate a series of actions after a caller presses 2 on a touch-tone phone, the files must be in a subfolder with the number 2 as its name, and so on. This is an interface only a programmer could love, but it provides great flexibility for remotely controlling your Mac and providing information over the phone.

Enticing Extras

Both Phlink and PhoneValet can deal with incoming faxes by routing them to a fax machine, a program such as SmileOnMyMac’s Page Sender, or Panther’s built-in fax feature. And both let you manually record conversations. PhoneValet gets the nod here because the log entry for the call contains a convenient link to the recorded conversation, and you can play it back from within the application. Phlink makes you open the sound file in the Finder. Unfortunately, neither device lets you replace a traditional telephone handset with the Mac’s built-in microphone and speakers for hands-free conversations.

Only PhoneValet tracks all incoming and outgoing calls in its log, and it can customize reports for client billing. PhoneValet also has features that facilitate outgoing calls: you can initiate calls by double-clicking on entries in the log or the phone book or by speaking the name of the party you want to call.

If only PhoneValet integrated directly into existing contact databases in Address Book or Microsoft Entourage, it would eliminate the need to maintain multiple phone lists. Fortunately, it easily imports information from other sources into the PhoneValet phone book, unlike Phlink, which works only with Address Book.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

PhoneValet Message Center 2.0a and Phlink 1.4.2’s differences are best summarized by their version numbers. While their hardware capabilities are almost identical, the more mature PhoneValet offers a refined interface that will appeal to people who seek an easy-to-use voice-mail system enhanced with dialing features. Phlink is in an awkward phase, but it shows promise and offers plenty of power and flexibility for programming types who enjoy tinkering with scripts.

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