Techniques: Off the Shelf: Hardware

Connected to your PC, this desktop console promises to deliver switchboard and remote-dial capabilities

As the sole full-time employee of my home-based business, I like technology that emulates big-business systems. So the promises of Centrepoint Technologies' PC-enhanced switchboard intrigued me. In addition to replacing or working with telephone-company services, Concero Switchboard would let me place calls from remote locations. Eliminating credit-card calls, I figured, might save me enough to justify spending $500.

I'm in the business of translating "geek-talk" into English. Still, I found Concero Switchboard's on-screen directions for configuring the product decidedly opaque. The manual was no better. Finally, by consulting the on-line glossary---the only on-line help that doesn't reiterate manual entries---I was able to discover, for example, that the "distinctive ring" option means the switchboard will recognize specific ring patterns the telephone company can provide and route the calls to the appropriate extension based on the user's system configuration. I asked Kim, my writer and office manager, for a reality check. Not only did she confirm that the manual was unclear, but she also pointed out that its tiny type and on-screen pictures were nearly unreadable.

Bravely, I plodded on.

The office that I've set up in my home has three incoming telephone lines, so I was disappointed that Concero Switchboard's limit is two. I hooked up the two lines that I have devoted to my business, and, using my third line as if I were a customer, I put Concero Switchboard through its paces. To thoroughly test Concero Switchboard, I gathered telephones from all over my house.

Using a touch-tone telephone, I recorded a welcome message that prompts callers to press "1" to speak to Ben, press "2" to speak to Kim, press "3" to speak to Bob. Concero Switchboard can route each caller to any of up to four extensions wired to the back of the console. Some callers, of course, choose not to select an option. It was easy to program Concero Switchboard to forward their calls to my Bell Atlantic voice mailbox.

The product's common switchboard features worked well. Anyone can pick up any extension, put a call on hold, and transfer it to another extension. On hold, our callers heard music because I used a cable to connect a radio to Concero Switchboard's audio-in jack. And after I plugged a cheap microphone and speaker into the back of the console, it was simple to use Concero Switchboard's speakerphone function. Back on my computer, I dialed by clicking on the speakerphone keypad icon. The sound was fine.

I tried repeatedly to route incoming calls to a remote telephone and my pager. When Kim dialed into Concero Switchboard, it dialed the programmed number. I could hear her, but she couldn't hear me. Then we tried forwarding calls to my pager. Kim dialed the office number, and the switchboard dutifully dialed and signaled my pager, but apparently the signal wasn't strong enough to get my pager to register Concero Switchboard's call.

It would be great to make long-distance calls from outside the office while incurring the charges as if I had dialed from home. Concero Switchboard's Call Bridge feature provides two ways to make long-distance calls from a remote location. Testing the first technique, I dialed my office number and pressed a preprogrammed number to get a dial tone. Once I heard the tone, I should have been able to dial. No luck. I tried the second approach: when I dialed my telephone number, I used a password to summon Concero Switchboard's Call Bridge menu, and I followed instructions that got Concero Switchboard to place the call. That worked, but the reception was too weak to recommend.

Concero Switchboard's Call Back feature is for really remote long-distance calls. To test it out, I had Kim call the office switchboard from her home and signal it to call her back. Then she placed a call to me, using the Call Bridge feature described above. I got the same results as above, too.

I visited the Centrepoint Technologies Web site in hopes of finding out the reason for the reception problems. No answers there. Then I called the company's technical-support line. The senior technician who took my call said the cordless telephone that I had been using probably lacked power to send adequate signals. When I switched to a regular telephone, though, the reception was still poor. "You must have weak phone lines," he informed me.

I can't believe that in North America only my telephone lines are too weak to use Concero Switchboard, and I'm willing to bet that many other home-based offices need more than two incoming telephone lines. Still, other features of the product did work, and if you have strong telephone lines, Concero Switchboard just might be a better deal than the telephone company's monthly subscription services.

The Product
Concero Switchboard, from Centrepoint Technologies, Ottawa, Ontario (613-725-2980; $495)

Ben Garber, owner of 10-year-old Computer Training & Consulting, in Baltimore

Windows 95 or Windows 3.1; 2 MB available hard-disk space; COM port