A telephone and an answering machine can help you communicate with some efficiency, but if your communications are increasingly e-mail based, you may want your phone calls to also move to your Mac for easier management. But in order for that old-fashioned analog telephone to earn its place alongside your powerful Mac, you’ve got to get your hands on the right telephony tools. Just in time, Ovolab’s Phlink is coming into its own with its most recent version, 2.2.
This hardware-software package connects a standard phone line or a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA), such as one from Vonage, to a Mac using the USB hardware included with Phlink. The Phlink 2.2 software resolves most of the problems in the previous release ( , November 2004 ) and now includes call-logging and notation capabilities. But a few shortcomings persist.
More goodies built-in
Users of previous versions of Phlink will note many improvements. The Phlink software, which looks quite a bit like iTunes, logs the time and date of calls; automatically greets callers; records incoming messages as a voicemail service would; answers and routes incoming faxes; and optionally provides a pop-up window with caller ID info, so you can screen calls without even turning your head away from your Mac. You can easily search the call log and put calls into call lists, which let you display the call history from a certain phone number, in a certain date range, and by whether or not the call was answered. If you’re a stickler for calling people back, then you will take well to these new features.
Phlink 2.2 adds a Dashboard widget for Tiger users that lets you view your five most recent callers and dial your Address Book contacts. When greeting incoming callers, Phlink allows you to use a recorded announcement (an MP3 or AIFF file) or to create a text file that Phlink then reads to the caller via speech synthesis. After callers record their message, Phlink can send it via e-mail it to you.
The small Phlink device is USB-powered, so it doesn’t need a power supply. If you want to feed multiple phone lines into the Phlink software, you will need one device for each line. But the software is smart enough to deal with several of them hooked up to various phone lines at the same time. It just treats them as separate lines—line 1, line 2, and so on. It’s also necessary to connect a telephone to the hardware’s auxiliary RJ11, because Ovolab doesn’t let you answer calls using your Mac’s microphone and speakers.
Hacking it up
With a few tweaks, the simple-on-the-surface Phlink application can accomplish some really hackish things. With its dictionary of AppleScript terms, Phlink can be made to interact with other OS X apps. You can program Phlink to play a special greeting for certain callers based on their caller IDs. Or, if they supply no caller ID, like many telemarketers, you can program Phlink to put them in a loop of endless voice menus, a torturous “voicemail jail.” I created an IVR (interactive voice response) script that allowed callers to enter information using the telephone’s number pad. Through AppleScript, my Mac allowed callers to listen to a selection of iTunes tracks. Ovolab also supplies a basic set of Automator actions for use with Tiger that you can download from Ovolab’s support site. Phlink supports Bonjour (formerly Rendezvous), too, so you can have the caller ID pop-up window appear on networked Macs.
Linking scripts to Phlink is more of a chore than in PhoneValet Message Center, another Mac telephony app ( November 2004 ). This is because Phlink requires AppleScripts with certain filenames, in certain folders, rather than permitting you to specify any script you like for a given call event, as PhoneValet does.,
At Ovolab’s online support forum, a community of hackers shares ideas about how to extend Phlink’s functionality. There are example scripts for home automation: for example, you can turn your lights on and off by calling into your Mac. Some users have even built document fax-back systems, thanks to Phlink’s support for OS X fax transmission and SmileOnMyMac’s $30 Pagesender. Still, for people who are script-phobic—or less technically inclined—the learning process for setting up scripts will prove difficult.
If you’re looking for a friendlier telephony hardware-software combo, you may want to consider Parliant’s PhoneValet Message Center instead. (PhoneValet 3.0 was released while this review was in process; a review is forthcoming.) Hackers and tinkerers will love Phlink, but without a repertoire of basic AppleScript knowledge, non-technical users may be a bit turned off.
Macworld’s buying advice
If you’re on a budget or want some Tiger-specific telephony goodies, Phlink 2.2 is an excellent phone-message recorder and a huge improvement over its predecessor. With a little AppleScript savvy, Phlink can link your phone with all your favorite Apple apps, but non-technical users may still prefer the polish and completeness of its pricier competitor, PhoneValet.
[ Ted Wallingford is the author of Switching to VoIP (O’Reilly, 2005) and a senior network engineer with LCG Technologies Corp. in Elyria, Ohio. He semi-annually updates the Web site www.macvoip.com. ]Phlink’s call log integrates with Address Book, and you can filter calls to create custom call lists. Phlink’s Voicemail preferences give you precise control over the message recorder, just like a commercial voicemail system.