Verizon Hub Review

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$199

Pros: Great voice quality; Simultaneous ring feature; Streams V CAST videos; Can look up movie times and buy tickets; Chaperone GPS monitoring

Cons: Froze occasionally; No multi-user support; Traffic reports too general; Poor photo-handling; Can't check e-mail or surf the Web

Verdict: This VoIP device offers a lot more features than a traditional digital phone service, but Verizon's first effort is a bit rough around the edges.

With the Verizon Hub, the communications company offers cellular subscribers who refuse to ditch their landlines a VoIP phone that brings Verizon Wireless features such as V CAST Video, Chaperone GPS monitoring, and movie purchasing to the kitchen or living room, while allowing the home phone to communicate with family and friends' phones through SMS messaging. While it doesn't offer all the functionality of a cell phone or full-fledged Internet device, for $199 (after $50 mail-in rebate) and a $34.99 monthly charge for the Verizon Digital Voice plan, the Verizon Hub provides compelling enhancements to the traditional family phone.

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Design

Measuring 12.0 x 3.0 x 0.5 inches, the Verizon Hub eats up a fair amount of counter space, much of it taken by a thin metal stand that extends the depth to just over 7 inches. However, the large footprint is necessary to accommodate a handset cradle, a large speaker (for the speaker phone), and the 7-inch touchscreen. The inoffensive shiny black casing neither excites nor repels and should blend into any kitchen, home office, or living room's decor.

The wireless handset has a number pad, dial and hang-up buttons, a speaker phone button, a mute button, and a joystick that allows you to navigate through its menus. Additional handsets can be purchased for $79.99 each and placed throughout the home.

Putting aside the controls on the wireless handset, the unit itself has only a speakerphone button and a volume up/down rocker. A stylus used in combination with the touchscreen is used for all other functions. Unfortunately, the unit comes with only one easy-to-misplace stylus, which rests loosely in an indentation at the top of the unit. The unit also has two USB ports, which currently serve no purpose, but may become functional with a future software update.

Screen and User Interface

The vibrant 7-inch, 800 x 480-pixel screen provides lively colors and sharp picture quality from any viewing angle up to 90 degrees. The display is so bright that pictures and video are clearly visible even from across a large living room.

The simple, touch-based UI has a host of applications but only two main navigation screens: a customizable home screen with widgets for time, weather, messages, and calling features, and a menu screen with icons for each of the system's applications. The left side of the screen sports three tabs: a Menu tab; a Communications tab, which takes you to the dialpad; and a tab which shows the name of the open application (e.g., V CAST or Contacts).

Icons on all screens are large, colorful, and easy to click with either the bundled stylus or a fingernail. However, dragging scroll bars can be a bit of a challenge, particularly if you don't use the stylus.

For the most part, the Hub was extremely responsive. However, during several hours of testing, it froze for several seconds a few times and even crashed and restarted itself once while we were attaching a photo to an SMS message we were drafting.

The handset offers an abbreviated menu that you navigate with a joystick rather than a touchscreen. The handset menu has icons for displaying received calls, dialed calls, contacts, voicemail messages, settings, and an intercom feature. All other functions are available from the base unit only.

Wired or Wireless Connectivity

The Hub connects to your router via either an Ethernet cable or 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. In testing the system with an 802.11g router, the connection speed was more than adequate for every task, even playing streaming videos from Verizon Wireless' V CAST service.

Call Quality and Speaker Phone

Voice quality for the VoIP phone was on a par with a copper landline when calling either another landline or a wireless number. The built-in speaker was loud and clear, though somewhat tinny at higher volumes. You can even turn the handset itself into a speakerphone, or use the intercom feature, to deliver a loudspeaker message to the base and every other handset in the home.

Calling Features

In addition to call waiting, the Verizon Hub allows a host of calling features, including call forwarding, call blocking (called "Incoming Call Block"), simultaneous ring, and do not disturb modes. The most useful of these features is simultaneous ring, which will ring up to three other unique phone numbers if your Hub isn't answered after the first two buzzes.

The simultaneous ring feature would be more useful, however, if it allowed users to configure the secondary numbers based on the incoming caller's number. For example, in a family setting, Mom could have only her cell phone ring when the incoming call is from her parents, while the teenage daughter could receive just the calls from her school friends.

Call blocking allows users to block all unidentified callers or select callers they don't want to hear from. The Do Not Disturb feature turns that principle around by either forwarding all callers to voicemail or allowing in only selected callers for a set period of time. Do Not Disturb times can be set for particular hours and days so that, for example, only calls from your best friend and your parents will come through between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. weekdays.

Be warned: If you choose to allow in selected callers during Do Not Disturb mode rather than forwarding everyone to voicemail, the system does not forward other unallowed callers to voicemail; instead, it plays back an awkward automated message that says, "This phone is not accepting calls at this time"--and then hangs up on the caller. The same automated message is played to callers whom you intentionally block with the call-blocking feature. Either way, they know that you are blocking them, because they don't even get the option to leave a voicemail.

Visual Voicemail

A Verizon Hub voicemail account is included in the $34.99 monthly service fee. Unlike with Verizon Wireless cell phones, however, voice messages are downloaded automatically and displayed in the communications app with their time stamp and originating caller ID. You do not need to dial *86 and enter your password to listen to them from the base, though you can if you are using the handset only. You can also configure the Hub to send voicemail alerts to your e-mail address. These alerts contain the message length, time stamp, and originating number of a voicemail, along with a link to listen to the message at www.verizonwireless.com.

Because the Verizon Hub is intended to be a family phone, it's frustrating that the system supports only a single voicemail box. Many competing voicemail systems allow different family members to set up private boxes that callers could choose from when leaving a message. Also conspicuously absent are visual voicemail features such as PhoneTag's transcription service.

Messaging Features

Unlimited calling and messaging is included in the monthly fee (in the U.S., Puerto Rico, U.S. Territories, and Canada). As soon as the Hub receives a message, it displays an alert. An on-screen keyboard lets you type standard 160-character text messages and send them to any SMS-capable phone.

You can attach pictures and video to messages you send, but getting photos and clips onto the phone is a real hassle. The Hub does not come with a camera, and you can't use its two USB ports to transfer files. The only ways to upload media to the Hub are either to mail it a photo or video from a cell phone or to visit the www.verizonwireless.com/hub, log into your account there, and upload the photo. Video clips cannot be uploaded via the site. There is also a 199-photo limit. You can neither view nor send messages from the handset.

Photo Gallery

Once uploaded to your account, photos can be sent in messages and used as wallpaper for the home screen or in a gallery for a custom screensaver. The home-screen wallpaper can be set either online or on the Hub itself, but the screensaver gallery can only be controlled from the site.

Calendar

The most unique and compelling messaging feature the Verizon Hub has is its calendar function. Unlike most cell phones, which can only send SMS messages right away, the Hub can send SMS messages to cell phones, based on reminders left in its calendar. So if, for example, a father has to remember to pick up his daughter from soccer practice on Wednesday at 6 p.m., the calendar can be set to send him a reminder at 5:30pm that day.

Verizon Relay Message Board

The Verizon Relay message board application provides a convenient front end that displays text, picture, and video messages from selected callers (you designate them as "members") as tiles on a panel. Text-message tiles appear as yellow Post-it notes, photos appear as thumbnails, and videos appear as icons that read, "Your video has loaded. Just press play to start." The same texts, videos, and pictures are available, along with messages from non-members, in the standard-messages inbox, but the Relay board provides a more attractive display that evokes a home bulletin board or refrigerator door.

Chaperone

If you have children with cell phones that have Verizon Wireless' Chaperone GPS tracking service enabled, you can find their current locations on a map displayed on the Hub using the built-in Chaperone application. Enter the phone number and password for the child's phone and you can see where he or she is. However, if you want to configure the Chaperone account to send alerts when your kid enters or leaves designated Child Zones, you'll need to manage that using Chaperone's own Web-based tool.

V CAST Videos

The V CAST application allows users to download and view hundreds of videos from Verizon Wireless' library, including sports news from ESPN, fashion tips from Good Housekeeping, and video recipes from the Food Network for no additional charge. Video streaming was smooth, though picture quality became a bit blocky and jerky when we tapped to make the videos show at full-screen.

The how-to content, particularly the recipes, are incredibly useful if the Hub is placed in the kitchen and can be watched while cooking. However, they would be even more useful, if the V CAST player allowed you to jog forward and back within a video. Unfortunately, if you miss a recipe step, you'll have to start the video over again, because the controls only allow you to play or pause.

Directory and VZ Navigator Integration

The Directories application allows users to browse through a virtual yellow pages of local businesses, including restaurants, auto-repair shops, stores, travel agents, doctors, and other valuable services. When you select a business, it appears as a pinpoint on a map and you are given the option to call it, add it to your contact list, or send it to a Verizon Wireless cell phone as a VZ Navigator message that will give that phone user directions and a map to the location. Using this feature, we were successfully able to send our cell phone a VZ Navigator link to a local restaurant along with a text message to "meet us here for dinner."

Movie Tickets (via Fandango)

The Movie Tickets application provides show times, listings, synopses, and trailers for current films, while allowing you to purchase tickets by credit card using the Hub. The listings and content are provided by ticketing site Fandango.com, so all the major movie theaters and releases are covered. As with the directory application, you can view a map on the device or send a VZ Navigator link to a phone for any theater. Using the system we were able to send two theater locations to a Motorola Rapture VU30 phone, though the VZ Navigator service on the phone itself was spotty, giving us fairly accurate directions in one case, but citing another theater several miles from its actual location in another instance.

Traffic

Up-to-date road reports are available in the Traffic application, courtesy of Traffic.com. However, unlike the Traffic.com Web site, which lets you enter a zip code and select options on an interactive map, the reports on the Verizon Hub are short video announcements about the state of traffic in any one of 37 metropolitan areas, ranging from Albany, N.Y., to West and Central Los Angeles.

The traffic reports are sometimes preceded by brief commercials and reminded us of local radio and television reports; you have to sit through reports about every roadway, whether it's in your travel plans or not, and whether it has a traffic condition or not. Listening to the report's computerized voice say the name of a highway and then the words "nothing to report" several times in a row quickly becomes tedious. Nor can you send the reports to a cell phone, print them, or integrate them with VZ Navigator directions.

Verizon Hub Verdict

If you start picking each of the Verizon Hub's myriad features apart, you see a lot of room for improvement. The Hub should have better multi-user support by offering more than one voicemail box and allowing different users to be alerted by simultaneous ring, depending on the identity of the incoming caller. It could definitely use a better way to manage photos without a Web browser, and the ability to upload videos. It ought to let you configure, not just view the location of Chaperone-enabled phones. And some of its applications--most notably the exhausting traffic-reporting tool--are poor replicas of popular Web tools.

If you think of the Hub less as a next-gen Internet appliance or stationary smart phone, and more as a landline replacement with benefits, it's a compelling choice for Verizon Wireless customers that have families. For $34.99 a month, the cost of the Verizon Hub's unlimited-calling VoIP service is a little higher than a $24.99 calling plan offered by Vonage, but lower than what many cable companies charge for their phone services. If you are willing to make the initial $199 investment in the device itself, then the monthly fee is more than reasonable for the additional features you get on top of the unlimited calling.

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Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.
Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Size 12.0 x 9.0 x 0.5 inches
Weight 1.5 pounds
Company Website http://www.verizonwireless.com
VoIP Price Range $50-$100