As a computer person, I find myself continually frustrated by the limitations of the hard-coded devices that surround us in the real world, and one of the most irritating areas for this is the telephone. Why can’t my telephone announce who is calling before I pick up the phone? Why can’t I easily tell how much time I’ve been on the phone? And why do I still have telephone numbers – sometimes several per person – cluttering my brain?
A Canadian company called Parliant has taken it upon themselves to solve many of these irritations with a new $130 product called PhoneValet. It’s a combination of a USB device that connects your phone line with your Mac and Mac OS X software that handles call announcing (assuming you have caller ID service), call dialing, and call logging. (Note that it does not currently act as an automated attendant with multiple voice mailboxes or anything like that.) PhoneValet 1.0 works as promised, although it suffers from haphazard caller ID information from the phone company and a variety of minor problems common in 1.0 releases.
PhoneValet Parts and Pieces — The physical guts of PhoneValet are ensconced in a translucent purple box about half the size of a deck of playing cards. One side has a single RJ-11 phone jack; included in the package is a standard phone splitter so you can attach both it and your phone at the same time. The other side has a USB port; Parliant also includes the necessary USB cable for connecting to your Mac. No power is necessary, nor is a modem, but PhoneValet currently works only with analog phone lines, sometimes referred to as POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) lines.
The software side is held up by the PhoneValet application, which provides the primary interface, and a variety of smaller applications that work behind the scenes to track incoming and outgoing calls, dial the phone, and more – all so that the main PhoneValet application doesn’t have to be running for call announcements and logging to take place.
The PhoneValet application is, at least on the surface, a model of simplicity and interface elegance. It provides two main tabs: a Phonebook tab that lists all your stored names and numbers, and a Call Log tab that lists each placed, answered, or unanswered call. A Notes field lets you add free-form text notes to any phonebook or call log entry.
A toolbar at the top of the window provides five buttons and a Quick Search field. A Dial button dials the phone number associated with the current entry (whether it’s a phonebook or call log item), a Delete button deletes the current entry, and a Details button displays a drawer on the right side of the window that shows a few more details than are in the list, and lets you edit names and numbers. An Add Number button lets you add the phone number from a received call to your phonebook. Lastly, a Report button brings up a dialog that lets you query the call log database, displaying the results in a Call Log Report tab that appears next to the Phonebook and Call Log tabs. Similarly, if you use the Quick Search field to search in either the Call Log or Phonebook tabs, the results appear in either the Call Log Report tab or another Phonebook Report tab. In a nice touch, you can continue to search within the report tabs to narrow the results. Oddly, you can’t edit an entry in the Details drawer if you select it from one of the report tabs.
PhoneValet also puts an icon in the menu bar that provides a number of menu commands that enable you to control voice dialing.
Populating the Phonebook — You add names and numbers to PhoneValet’s phonebook in one of four ways:
Click the Add Number button with nothing selected to add a name and number manually in the Details drawer. It’s easy, but more work than is necessary most of the time.
Select an entry in the call log and click Add Number to add it to the phonebook. Much of the time you must enter or edit the name so it looks (and sounds, for voice announcements) the way you want.
Import from Apple’s Address Book. PhoneValet doesn’t integrate with Apple’s Address Book because Address Book is both limited to a single user at a time and isn’t available when no user is logged in. However, it’s trivial to import from Address Book, and Parliant will be tightening the connection between the two in a future release.
Import from a tab- or comma-delimited file that you’ve exported from your contact database. Parliant fixed a bug that stymied my initial imports, but it’s still a somewhat finicky process.
In using my contacts in PhoneValet, I realized that I use only about 1 percent of the more than 2,000 entries in my full Now Contact database. I imported just selected contacts into PhoneValet, but even still, it turns out I call a rather small set of people on a regular basis. The main downside of importing more contacts into PhoneValet is that the list becomes unwieldy (voice recognition accuracy may suffer as well), but the more entries you have, the more likely PhoneValet will be to announce a caller’s name correctly based on caller ID information.
Placing Calls — To make an outgoing call using the PhoneValet, you select an entry associated with a phone number (either a phonebook or call log entry) and click the Dial button. A dialog appears on the screen showing the name and number that will be dialed and instructing you to pick up a phone to dial. Parliant deserves points for this interface – it just seems very right to instruct the computer to dial and then have it wait until I’m ready, rather than it dialing instantly while I scramble to put on my headset.
If you have voice dialing enabled and an appropriate microphone, you can also just say, "Call Mom," for instance, to have it dial the number associated with your mother. PhoneValet uses Apple’s built-in speech recognition, which was quite accurate in my use. Only a few times did I find myself having to repeat myself or try again because it understood me incorrectly. Once PhoneValet recognizes the name, it dials the phone just as though you had clicked the Dial button.
Of course, you can also dial your phone (or any extension on the same line) using the telephone’s keypad. PhoneValet still sees and records the number you’ve dialed, tracking the time and duration of the call in the call log. If the person you’ve dialed is in your phonebook already, the call log displays their name as well as the number dialed.
I found the voice dialing feature exhilarating – finally, a situation where the Mac actually listens to me talk and does the right thing! But I also found it rather frustrating, for reasons that are out of Parliant’s control. I’m using one of Apple’s new iSight cameras as the microphone connected to my Power Mac G4, and there appears to be a bug in Mac OS X related to FireWire-based audio input whereby Apple’s speech recognition stops working after the Mac is brought out of sleep, at least until I toggled voice dialing off and then on again in the PhoneValet system menu. Irritating, since I was continually forgetting to toggle voice dialing in the morning after waking my Mac up until it didn’t work the first time I tried to place a call.
Even more troublesome (and it took quite some testing to pin this one down) was the fact that if Apple’s speech recognition is turned on, iChat AV audio chats always fail. It’s confusing too, since the error message in iChat AV just talks about how no packets were received in 10 seconds. However, I’ve now confirmed that I can leave voice dialing on, turn it off before initiating or accepting an audio chat, and then have the chat with no troubles. The solution to this problem will have to come from Apple; since iChat AV already knows how to pause and restart iTunes playback for audio chats; it should also toggle speech recognition off and on again.
A variety of preferences control how PhoneValet should dial your phone for local and long distance calls so it can understand what area codes count as local, if local calls require 7, 10, or 11 digits, what prefixes are necessary long distance dialing, and so on.
Receiving Calls — Whenever you receive a call, PhoneValet notices it, and if possible, reports the name and phone number of the call both visually in an easy to read pop-up dialog that appears briefly in the center of your screen, and audibly via Mac OS X’s speech synthesis. PhoneValet also starts an entry in the call log, recording the name and number if available, the start time, and the call duration. If you have multiple phone lines, which requires multiple PhoneValet boxes, PhoneValet also tracks which line the call used.
I waffle with "if possible" and "if available" in the above paragraph, because there are numerous caveats to PhoneValet’s call monitoring capabilities. You must have caller ID service from the phone company for it to work at all. Even if you have caller ID, though, PhoneValet can only pick up the information if it’s being reported, and many large organization phone systems (such as the ones used by both Apple and Cornell University) don’t necessarily relay that information. Individuals can block caller ID as well, and I found that PhoneValet failed to pick up caller ID information on many occasions as well.
In fact, I’ll tell you exactly what happened, since I think it’s instructive both from what kind of information I was able to extract from PhoneValet’s call logs, and just how caller ID service can be flaky. I asked PhoneValet to display all the calls I’ve received and saved the report to a tab-delimited text file, which I then opened and converted to a list in Microsoft Excel. Since the end of July, I’ve received 171 calls, 131 of which have come through with no caller ID information – that’s over 75 percent! Since I have all unanswered calls forwarded to my cell phone, which also does caller ID, I’ve noticed that the cell phone is much better about picking up caller ID information, often displaying it properly when PhoneValet misses it entirely. (See "Rejiggering Personal Voice Communications" in TidBITS-593 for the story of how we set up our cell phones.)
Bothered by this poor performance, I checked into it more. Kevin Ford, Parliant’s president, said that the quality and content of caller ID sent to your phone line does vary, but he was surprised at the performance I’d seen. Then I called Verizon Repair, and the repair guy who visited confirmed that the phone company equipment was working properly, but when he tested the internal wiring in my house, he found a short that he said could account for the lost caller ID information. I’m not looking forward to tracking down the short, since our house has something like 15 phone jacks, many of which are daisy-chained together in unknown configurations. The repair guy also said the short could stem from too many phones connected. We normally have about eight devices plugged in, which might well be too many. A traditional telephone handset is considered as one ring-equivalency number (REN), with five RENs as the maximum for a standard home. Modern phones may have RENs lower than one, apparently, so I might have been okay, but I’ve unplugged two phones and our outgoing-only fax machine to see if that helps.
Needless to say, I was disappointed that the caller ID feature didn’t work better on my line, since one of my big plans was to use PhoneValet to announce calls both on my Mac upstairs and on another Mac downstairs, so I’d receive advance notice of who was calling even if I wasn’t in my office. PhoneValet can run AppleScript scripts or send email whenever a call comes in, but I never bothered to figure out how to do it, given that it would be useful on only a quarter of the calls I receive. Kevin also said that Parliant plans to enable PhoneValet to announce incoming calls on multiple computers for just this purpose and for small offices with multiple analog phone lines, and they’re also looking at enabling caller-specific actions.
Annoyingly, telemarketers almost always block caller ID information, so if you’re trying to avoid them, you must pick up the phone based only on positive identification of people you want to talk with. That also points to a piece of advice for those of you who block your caller ID information – consider yourself warned that those of us who want to know who’s calling are much more likely to ignore your unidentified calls.
Problems and Annoyances — I said before that PhoneValet’s interface was a model of simplicity and elegance, at least on the surface. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll start finding unwelcome surprises and annoyances.
Whenever you edit an entry or add note text to one, you must explicitly save your work. That usually happens when you select another entry and PhoneValet prompts you to save. It’s an annoying extra step, and one I ran into often, as I added names or notes to unidentified entries. Instead, PhoneValet should save all changes automatically, and if Parliant is concerned about data loss, they should implement a multiple Undo capability.
The phonebook and call log are just columnar lists, and you can sort them by clicking the column titles (other than Note; I have no idea why you can’t sort the list by the entries that have notes). Clicking a second time reverses the sort order, which is good. Otherwise, however, the lists lack all of the standard niceties. You can’t select multiple items, as you might want to for deleting a number of unused entries from your phonebook, or bogus placed call entries from your call log (if you make a mistake dialing a phone number manually, hang up, and try again, PhoneValet records both actions). It also lacks any sort of selection shortcuts, so you can’t type the first few letters of an entry in the phonebook to scroll to that entry, which would be highly welcome. Future versions will reportedly add these enhancements.
The inability to select contacts quickly is particularly problematic if you don’t use voice dialing, since there’s no other shortcut for finding and dialing a number from your phonebook. I’d like to see Parliant add a list of contacts to the system-wide PhoneValet menu so you could choose a contact from that menu to dial the associated number. With just a little extra tracking, they could even offer a separate list, perhaps in a hierarchical menu, of the contacts you call most often.
That suggestion hints at a deeper problem. PhoneValet actually uses an SQL relational database from OpenBase, but for the moment, it seems under-utilized. For instance, why not report, in a phonebook entry, how many calls you’ve placed and received from that person, along with total and average call duration? It’s of course possible to export a report and determine that information in a spreadsheet or database, but PhoneValet is already using a powerful database. Or, consider the fact that if you add a name to a call log entry for which you have only the phone number, PhoneValet doesn’t automatically change the name for all other call log entries from the same number, even if you then save that call log entry as a phonebook item. Parliant plans to add more database-driven features in the future, and third parties can access the database directly as well.
PhoneValet, You’re Hired — If I had a job that revolved around the phone, particularly one that involved billing for call time, I’d consider PhoneValet an essential tool for conducting business. But despite the fact that I don’t really need to track calls, and despite my problems with identifying incoming calls, I’ve become quite fond of PhoneValet, particularly the voice dialing feature. Other people who will especially like PhoneValet are folks with multiple kids who receive phone calls, people overwhelmed by sleazy telemarketers calling during dinner, and small offices for whom PhoneValet’s call logging simplifies tracking and calling customers back.
PhoneValet is very much a 1.0 application, with various attendant minor bugs and missing features, but Parliant has released several small updates since I started using PhoneValet in late July, so they’re clearly committed to improving the product. That commitment also comes through in their email support, which has been among the best I’ve seen of late. Each email message I’ve sent has received an automatic response containing a trouble ticket number, and a support rep has followed up immediately with help (apparently, it’s a full-fledged WebObjects support system). Several bugs I reported were fixed quickly in minor releases of the program, and Parliant even built a special version of the program to help track down some problems I was seeing that seemed to be in Apple’s code and which they couldn’t reproduce. Parliant also pays close attention to customer requests, adding and prioritizing features based on what people want, so make sure to ask for any features that would make PhoneValet work better for you.
PhoneValet 1.0 costs $130 for one phone line, with a $90 expansion pack for each additional line you want PhoneValet to manage. Since it relies on hardware as well as software, there’s no trial version, but Parliant does offer a 30-day money-back guarantee. It works only in Mac OS X (10.1.5 or higher), although Parliant makes a similar product called Tell A Phone for Windows.
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