Telephony software like Parliant’s PhoneValet and Ovolab’s Phlink ( October 2005 ) can turn your Mac into a highly trained receptionist—and more. Not only do these tools answer your phone, they also log calls, store voicemail messages, and record conversations.
With PhoneValet Message Center 3.0.2, Parliant adds several new features, like call blocking and custom ring tones. While they’re not necessarily groundbreaking, these features are useful improvements to the already-potent previous version ( November 2004 ).
At your service
PhoneValet ships with a USB dongle that allows you to connect a phone line to your Mac (you’ll need to purchase additional retail packages to set up more lines). Also included is an adapter that has dual jacks so that you can keep a phone connected to the same line that you have hooked up to your Mac—useful, although I prefer Phlink’s USB dongle, which has two jacks built in (no extra adapter needed).
PhoneValet features two main software components: Phonebook and Log, and Message Center. The former keeps a running log of all incoming and outgoing calls. Each log entry contains identifying information (if your phone service supports caller ID), the date and time the call took place, and a flag that indicates whether there’s a voicemail message. Every time you receive an incoming call, you also get a pop-up notification of who’s phoning (again, if your line has caller ID).
Unfortunately, PhoneValet’s built-in phonebook is rather cumbersome. In order to preserve changes, you must click Save for each record, which slows you down if you’re updating or adding a large list of contacts. There’s a Revert button in case you make a mistake—but it only works if you haven’t yet clicked Save. I prefer Phlink’s method, which uses Apple’s Address Book as its contact manager. When you edit a contact in Phlink, the information also changes in Address Book. (PhoneValet will import contacts from Address Book, however.)
The main addition to PhoneValet 3.0 is the concept of profiles, a way to group different callers. Using this feature, you can automatically block certain pesky callers by assigning them to a particular profile and having PhoneValet immediately disconnect those calls. You can also assign each profile its own ring tone (which plays through your Mac’s speakers)—a good way to tell who’s calling just by sound. You can even set up a custom outgoing message for a group of callers—for instance, family members or a certain set of clients.
Just leave a message
Message Center is where PhoneValet really outshines Phlink. Message Center allows you to easily create up to 11 distinct voicemail greetings and mailboxes. (Doing this in Phlink requires scripting savvy.) You can specify the number of rings PhoneValet should wait before answering, as well as record an outgoing greeting directly within Message Center using a microphone connected to your Mac. (With Phlink, you must create your own greeting using another application.) You can also use pre-recorded sound files or have one of Mac OS X’s built-in synthesized voices read from text you create.
One handy feature: PhoneValet 3.0.2 ships with a plug-in (in previous versions, this involved a separate download) that allows voicemail messages to appear in Mac OS 10.4’s Spotlight search results. While Spotlight doesn’t offer the same detailed search capabilities available in PhoneValet, it does enable you to look for all correspondence (e-mail and voicemail) associated with a particular contact—by name or by phone number. Useful, not to mention cool.
Speaking of useful, PhoneValet also features a number of automation functions, including AppleScripts that you can use to trigger certain actions in other applications. One script, for instance, pauses iTunes playback when you pick up the phone and resumes it when you hang up. PhoneValet’s dial-in remote control feature is equally cool—it allows you to call your Mac from any phone and trigger an AppleScript or check voicemail while you’re on the road. You can write your own scripts, or use one of the samples Parliant provides.
Macworld’s buying advice
PhoneValet is great for anybody who wants to log, record, and automatically answer calls with a Mac. The new customization features are easily worth the $30 upgrade fee, although first-time buyers or heavy Address Book users should seriously consider Phlink—it’s less expensive and makes the best use of OS X’s contact manager. But with its highly configurable message recorder and user-friendly support for multiple voicemail boxes, PhoneValet remains the best choice for those who value ease of use and simplicity.
PhoneValet’s call log tells you who called and when. It also indicates if the caller left a message—and in which mailbox.
You can record a greeting on the spot, import an audio file, or provide text for one of the OS’s built-in voices to recite.
You can set up to 11 mailboxes, one for each of the number keys on a standard telephone, plus the pound (#) key.
PhoneValet’s profiles let you handle incoming calls differently based on their caller ID.
You can greatly expand PhoneValet 3’s power by purchasing one of the available add-ons or bundles. PhoneValet Anywhere ($80 for two users) lets you access many of the application’s features via a local network or over the Internet. You can retrieve voicemail messages, as well as sift through PhoneValet’s call log, from any Safari, Firefox, or Internet Explorer Web page, provided you’ve configured your firewall to allow incoming connections to your Mac.
PhoneValet Anywhere also includes a remote agent, which allows nearby Mac or PCs to display caller ID announcements when an incoming call comes in. This feature makes use of Apple’s Bonjour (formerly Rendezvous) networking standard and works only with computers connected to your Mac’s local area network. (Note that PhoneValet’s main competitor, Ovolab’s Phlink, comes with remote-call announcements built in, though it doesn’t support Windows.)
PhoneValet’s Podcasting Option ($75) consists of two applications to help aspiring podcasters edit and clean up phone interviews or messages recorded with PhoneValet. The bundle includes Peak Express, a functionally limited version of BIAS’s excellent audio-editing application, and SoundSoap, a noise-reduction plug-in for Peak. Since it doesn’t actually expand the application’s functionality, the Podcasting Option isn’t really an add-on for PhoneValet, per se. But it’s a pretty good deal if you plan to use PhoneValet for recording podcast content.
[ Ted Wallingford is a senior systems engineer with
LCG Technologies in Elyria, Ohio, and the author of Switching to VoIP (O’Reilly, 2005). ]