Product Name/Version: Phone Valet 2.0
Category: Telephone Adapter
Price: $199.95 USD (MSRP); Order one package per line – they’ll work together.
Message Center Upgrade $99.95 USD. – for users of PhoneValet 1.x, includes one updated USB telephone adapter.
Requirements: OS X 10.2 and up.
Rating: 4 bounces – Pure Lust
With so many lousy products coming from the big guns I am always glad when a small guy manages to release something that’s cool, and works well. After all, if companies that should have the resources to come out with cool stuff can’t, what are the chances of a small developers?
Turns out that the small developers are where it’s at. Somehow by becoming bigger concerns, many also lose market agility. Lose touch with the customer needs. Lose the ability to innovate.
And so: If I am glad when small guy manages to release something that’s pretty cool, and works pretty well, how do you think I feel when one releases something even better than that?
In his review of Parliant’s Phone Valet last year, Applelust’ Pierre Igot had to moderate his enthusiasm in what he did nonetheless consider a well rounded product. With the release of version 2 of the software, I can now tell Pierre he can let go of the breaks: Phone Valet is as hot as it gets.
I used to run an application on my shiny PowerMac 6100 called Megaphone. Until today Megaphoone still has set a standard to reach, let alone beat, and no contenders had come close. Well – new standard time, because my favorite has been K.O.’d in the first round.
Picture this: An answering machine that works across multiple phone lines, handles multiple phone boxes, keeps a detailed, caller-ID log of all phone calls made from any handset in your home or office, can email to the addresses of your choice messages as they come in, can pass faxes to the built-in 10.3 software, allows you to dial any phone number from within any application – including Address Book – AND can allow you to call in and remote control your Mac.
The kicker is you don’t need anything but the Parliant adaptor – no modem necessary.
I am not one to do overly technical reviews of products. You can read the spec sheet, or the promotional releases for in-depth information. What I look at is real life application: Is the product I am reviewing able to deliver on its promises, unobtrusively, without the need of constant reconfiguration or troubleshooting.
With the ubiquity of phone company vocal boxes, and the low cost of a physical answering machine, any computer based solution would have to provide a great amount of added-value to be worth the trouble. The alternatives are just more attractive otherwise. This added-value also has to be practical, for what would be the point of nifty features nobody actually uses? We’ve got Microsoft Word for that.
Phone Valet is a Hardware/Software solution. The phone line adaptor connect to any USB port on your computer, and has worked flawlessly connected to a cheap, unpowered USB hub on mine. Unlike similar solutions, this implementation leaves your modem port free, and can even be used if you do not have a modem.
Plug it in – that’s it. Nothing complicated for the hardware.
On the surface, the software is also rather simple. It comes with two obvious user interface modules, and one that’s more discreet: since the core functionality of the software is provided by a limited-license of the OpenBase database engine, you can also access your data through it’s own user interface.
I will skip on the Openbase aspect of things, sufficing to say power-users will undoubtably find such an open architecture quite attractive; it opens the door to third-party module integration, with billing or call center software, for instance.
For most users the primary interface will be the Phone Valet application. Using this, you will be able to do all configurations. Another application, the PhoneValet Message Center, provides a simple interface to recent calls and messages; it can also be launched from a convenient menu bar item, which also gives an instant feedback of calls/messages received.
From the day you install the software on your Mac, Phone Valet starts keeping an accurate log of all calls made and received on the line it monitors. Not the phone, on the line: all the phones, including hand-dialed calls on extension phones.
The database engine means you can search through your calls and find details, including messages, from months ago in an instant. You can also extract, and print, detailed call reports according to any variables you choose.
Every log entry lists the line on which the call was received or made, the Caller ID information, the start time and date, the length of the call, and the type of the call: Anwered, Unanswered, Placed, with Message or Remote Access.
If you make a call to anyone included in your Phone Valet address book, details are also logged, otherwise the only phone number, time, date, call length and type will show.
Phone Valet does not integrate directly with Apple’s Address Book, but importing data is intuitive and quick. This non-integration is not a liability, since unlike FaxSTF, for instance, it does not force you into using Address Book if you prefer to use another contact manager.
Apple’s idea of having one central depository for contact information may have been wonderful in theory, but in practice I find the implementation lacks many essential features long available with alternative such as Now Contact. An application that forces the use of Address book creates the situation Adddress book was meant to eliminate…
PhoneValet can handle up to 11 independent message boxes, each with its own setting and sub-greeting.
The software comes with nicely professional greetings, or you can record your own. An unusual alternative is using Apple’s Text-to-Speech engine to generate greetings. You can also record greetings in any audio application and import it into Phone Valet, a great bonus for those with some creative juices brewing, or simply to add a little echo to a thin voice.( Using this method I added the “dih-da-doh”, line disconnected tones at the beginning of my message in an attempt to defeat telemarketers using predictive dialing. It works!)
You can also choose the compression format for the messages you receive. You can pick highly compressed 3GPP, AAC or WAV.
Proper compression choices are essential in some circumstances; for instance, you can program Phone Valet to add all incoming messages first to iTunes, then to your iPod. In this case you would obviously need to use the iPod-compatible audio format, such AAC. You can also have Phone Valet automatically email received messages to an address of your choice; if the recipient is using Windows, the larger WAV format may be the safest choice.
Each box can be assigned a different audio compression format, and a separate email address.
Call Filtering and Recording
Ahhhh…. The power of Caller ID!
As would be expected, Phone Valet provides full call filtering features. Calls can be announced both on the screen and by Apple Speech, block and redirected directly to messages.
If you are so inclined, and the law where you live allows this, you can also record any phone conversations and save the file for later. I can think of a few relationships that may have been saved this way.
Of all similar products, Phone Valet has to be the one offering the most choices for dialing calls: You can dial by voice using any microphone, dial from any application using Apple Services or the clipboard, dial via AppleScript, dial directly from Apple’s Address Book, or dial by double-clicking a call registry in your log.
I am hard pressed to think of any missing, practical dialing method. No matter where, if it’s a phone number, you can call it. Select the number, and use the Phone Valet menubar item to dial it.
Oh – and pick up the phone at some point, too!
Scripting and Automation
Here comes my favorite bit. Until now, we’ve been discussing and answering system, albeit a good one, And no matter how good, I find it hard to get extremely excited about an answering system.
Phone Valet offers a high level of integration with Applescript. Out of the box, you can use one of the Parliant scripts, and by assigning a proper remote access code, for example have the software retrieve the local weather from the Internet and read you the nest week’s forecast over the phone.
There is also another included script that will read the contents of your iCal calender. Nifty.
Applescript is used in other handy ways. For instance, you can have Phone Valet pause/start iTunes and change your iChat status whenever you pick up or hang up a receiver.
But add to this a little technology called X-10, the standard for computer-controlled home automation which is also highly scriptable, and you can now control all your appliances, thermostat and whatnots remotely, via phone. Just ask via Applescript your X-10 controller, Xtension, Indigo or other, to send the proper command to your X-10 modules.
Obviously, you can also remotely control your Mac in the same manner by procuring, or creating, the proper Applescript.
It makes my head spin to think about all the possibilities. Because the system is open-ended, and uses already popular technology, it should be a breeze to find and download already-written scripts to do almost anything. Turn off the Air Conditionning or start the heater. Restart a server. Upload snapshots to a FTP site. Have your computer play a Sousa rally, really loud at 4AM to wake up your roommate. Whatever. Mac users are known as being creative.
Phone Valet provides a gateway between your phone system and your computer; with it, anything your computer can do, you can now control by phone.
I really like Phone Valet, a product that truly delivers. I think you should have picked that up by now from my subtle hints. But what I truly love in Parliant’s product it the potential it shows. Not potential in “how the product could be improved”, since it’s already almost as good as it can get. No, I mean the potential in uses that will arise that nobody could have predicted.
It reached both that practical man in me looking for a practical solution, and the geek tinkerer looking to create wonderful, innovative application, or just crazy stuff, depending on my caffeine intake of the day.
Anything that arouses my creativity in such a way deserves all my bounces.
By the way, check this iPhone Blog.