As a piece of hardware, the Engin Voice Box is entirely unremarkable -- it's a tiny silver plastic box with inputs for power, network cable and phone lines. It's not the hardware side of the equation that makes the Voice Box interesting, however -- it's the inbuilt VOIP capabilities of the device. So, what's VOIP? VOIP is Voice Over Internet Protocol -- put simply, a way to use your broadband Internet connection to make phone calls. The amount of bandwidth needed for voice is actually surprisingly low, mainly because most people don't expect crystal clear sound quality out of a phone, although as we discovered, you can still get bitten by the quality bug -- but more on that later.
Setting up the Voice Box is a simple enough affair. Plug your existing phone (analog, cordless or DECT) into the box, plug the other end into a router -- a simple broadband connection won't do here, and if you don't have a router, you'd need to include the cost of getting one into your purchase decision -- and power the unit up. Then call Engin and activate the service -- presumably providing them with credit card details along the way, although the sample box we were provided with was pre-activated for us. Engin offers a variety of calling plans on their web site. Rates vary depending on your calling patterns, but they're typically cheaper than you'd get with a standard land line.
Aside from calling out, the Voice Box also offers a host of additional phone-based features, from voice mail to caller ID and conference calling, although whether you'll be able to access every function is more dependent upon the features of your eventual phone than the box itself; caller ID, for example, is only available if you've already got caller ID features on your phone.
While it'll happily call out to any number without the need for a prefix, you will have to get used to having yet another phone number; you can't match the Engin service to your existing number.
We tested the Engin Voice Box on a 512K ADSL connection, and were generally pleased with the results -- as long as we weren't otherwise heavily taxing the broadband connection. This will be a sticking point for many consumers, especially those on cheaper, lower speed broadband connections, as if you're concurrently downloading a lot, or using bandwidth intensive services -- we hit noticeable dropouts and poor voice quality when using Xbox Live at the same time, for example -- then your call quality will suffer. As could be expected, calls to mobiles sounded worst, although it's obviously much harder to call one side or the other the culprit in that case.
Aside from the need for a router, there's a secondary catch to the Voice Box's value equation. The majority of broadband users are currently using ADSL; it's only if you're in selected areas that the cable or wireless broadband option is open to you, and if you've got ADSL, you're already paying for a line rental that's capable of perfectly good phone calls -- and one that shouldn't fall over if your ISP does, which could be important in emergency cases. Once you add in the cost of the Voice Box and ongoing usage charges, and the cost of your existing line rental and broadband fees, you've got to be at least a moderate home phone user to make the Voice Box really compelling; if you're only a light phone user it'll take much longer for the unit to pay itself off.