Home Reviews Smartphones & Mobile Devices Review: Telstra T-hub next-gen phone

Telstra has released its next-generation telephone system, exclusive to Telstra landline and BigPond Internet customers. iTWire has purchased one and tried it out; let us tell you what you need, what works and what doesn't.

The T-Hub wants to become a 'hub' in your home - a hub for media, information, and, naturally, communications. While I don't see its entertainment features replacing a media centre anytime soon (after all, it only has a 7' screen) there's no doubting it is a good step towards a converged telephone and Internet solution.

First things first; the T-Hub plugs into your existing analogue landline. It doesn't use Voice-over-IP (VoIP) and to be honest, that's not a bad thing given this is aimed at residential customers. It will also tap in to your existing WiFi network for Internet access. Telstra cite their own services - that is, Telstra fixed line telephone services and Telstra BigPond - as pre-requisites for the T-Hub to work. I am sure you could make the unit work on other networks although with more or less features missing.

The box contains three main components. The first is the T-Hub itself with charging base. Next is a cordless handset again with a charging base. The third item is the base station for the telephone signal which is a fairly non-descript unit save for a flashing blue light. This latter item plugs into your phone line and communicates with both the T-Hub and the cordless handset.

The fact you get a base station gives extra flexibility in where you position the T-Hub in your home. It doesn't have to be near a phone socket at all. So long as it is in range of both the base unit and your WiFi signal it will operate fine.

You can purchase the T-Hub outright for $299 which is what I did. Alternatively, you can pay for it on a repayment plan over two years.

Either way, take it home, open the box and plug it all in and you're on your way.


Powering on the T-Hub itself leads you through an initial setup wizard which tests your telephone line, connects to your WiFi network, searches for any software updates and connects you to Telstra's MyInbox service.

Despite the T-Hub only being available for retail purchase for just a week there was a software update waiting for my unit. Initially, I had difficulty downloading this. I've suspected for some time that BigPond wasn't happy with me using Google's DNS servers (8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4) in place of BigPond's own. Sure enough, I adjusted my router's DHCP settings and let BigPond's DNS servers flow through, powered the T-Hub off and on again and this time the software update downloaded successfully and swiftly.

MyInbox is a Telstra facility which combines your BigPond mailbox with SMS messages, voicemail and video mail and essentially allows you to combine all forms of messaging across all your Telstra devices in one set of folders. If you do not have a MyInbox account then the T-Hub will create one for you. MyInbox is accessible from both the Telstra and BigPond web sites as well as, naturally, through the T-Hub itself.

Once the unit is up and running you can begin adding contacts. The touch-screen interface is intuitive and you can fill up your address book with only minimal effort. The T-Hub synchronises contacts with MyInbox so you can also add and edit your contact list via a web browser. You can add photos to contacts and this is a snap to do online, synchronising back to the T-Hub. When one of your contacts phones you their name and photo duly pops up on-screen.

I added my contacts manually although Telstra do make available a facility to keep MyInbox synced with Microsoft Outlook on your desktop. This is a paid service, however, so unless you have a load of contacts and your BigPond e-mail address is your primary one this probably does not hold a lot of value.

The T-Hub and MyInbox synchronise during the course of the day and you can also force a sync at any time you choose. The T-Hub will show you the date and time of the last successful synchronisation but unfortunately does not advise when the next scheduled one will occur.

The T-Hub looks after the cordless handset which accompanies it and also sends up to 200 contacts to its memory. This synchronisation also happens automatically during the course of the day giving you a consistent address book on both units.

As a nice feature both devices can call each other, giving family members a cost-free way of communicating within the house by dialling each other. On my setup the cordless handset could be reached by dialling simply '1' and the T-Hub by dialling '6'. The T-Hub and base station can work with additional handsets and based on this numbering scheme I would guess it can support up to another four handsets, giving them the number range 1 through 5.


With all the setup out of the way, the T-Hub is ready to use. It looks like a Telstra-branded iPad although without multi-touch (pinch and flick certainly did nothing for me) and without being able to adjust the applications supplied.

The applications include a mix of voice-related, online information, and social networking services. You will find Sensis 1234 (essentially a speed dial button) alongside BigPond weather and Facebook's mobile-optimised web site. Other BigPond sites that have icons include news and sport, and other social networking sites include Twitter and MySpace. For BigPond customers, the BigPond sites are unmetered and so do not count against your download allowance.

The spread of applications, while limited to 24 in total over two 12-icon screens, mostly provides a good collection of utility and entertainment and are all pretty much right on message for the type of device the T-Hub is.

You will find an icon to manage call forwarding, one to turn silent ring on and off (essentially a 'do not disturb' function), a clock, calculator, notepad, Internet radio stations and more.

Three icons give access to pictures, videos and music files which can be supplied via either the USB or SD card slots. A 2Gb SD card is included in the bundle with a set of media about the T-Hub. Watch the videos once then re-use it for your own photos and favourite MP3s.

The T-Hub is undoubtedly designed to help Telstra customers make more use of Telstra facilities and this can be seen in the Settings section which not only enables you to customise aspects of the device but also your home phone line.

Here, you can turn call waiting on or off or learn about other Telstra landline features that might be of interest with a 'Call Telstra' button ready to take you to Telstra's call centre. The T-Hub is clearly using regular codes that you would ordinarily punch into your phone - #21, for example, to perform call forwarding - but regular folk wouldn't necessarily remember these codes or even know they exist so the T-Hub's quick-button access serves a most worthwhile purchase. While I expect the T-Hub should work with any PSTN line it makes sense the codes it is sending are network specific.

When it comes to telephone calls the T-Hub serves admirably; it makes and receives crisp, clear voice calls. You'll most likely use the cordless handset for most all calls however, because the T-Hub itself does not have a handset and can only operate in loudspeaker mode.


There are many compelling features about the T-Hub. The date and time are cleanly displayed on the top of the screen, along with battery life, base station signal strength and WiFi signal strength.

Your callers list shows the date and time of all recent calls in and out, whether answered or unanswered.

A screen saver option allows you to display a clock or nominated photo after a period of inactivity. In addition, you can specify night mode between specific hours and the T-Hub will simply switch its display off during that time (until you tap it or a call comes in).

The T-Hub also has SMS and e-mail capabilities so you can send messages in a variety of ways. There is no camera so video calls are out of the equation however.

All this said, not all is peachy. There are some things I don't like about the T-Hub. Perhaps these will be issued in a future software update.

For one, the list of ringtones is somewhat lacklustre. I would have liked to see an option for a regular telephone ring. There is an option called 'bring' (as in bbbrrrinnnggg) which does simulate an older telephone but that was the only 'normal' ring. Additionally, the ringtones are fairly short. While testing the messaging facility I had to endure a terrible ringtone abruptly finishing and restarting over and over. While you can play your own music you cannot import ringtones.

Secondly, the T-Hub doesn't capitalise on Telstra's Foxtel service. Telstra will allow you to watch Foxtel on your mobile phone - which, to me, offers little value being of miniscule size and equally small volume. Telstra will allow you to watch Foxtel over your BigPond connection - but there is no Foxtel app for the T-Hub, where the 7' screen could actually provide a reasonable experience.

Another thing which irks me is the lack of technical detail. Ok, the device is aimed at ordinary consumers and home users (although I doubt T-Hub's help desk would have asked me to check my DNS servers if I called about my software update woes) but some more guidance wouldn't go astray. At one point a manual synchronisation with MyInbox failed. The T-Hub only said it 'can't synchronise' and said nothing more than to 'try again later.'


Technical and inquiring types like myself would have liked to know why it couldn't synchronise. Did the connection time out? Was the MyInbox site down? Did something else happen?

Frustratingly, there is an area which purports to detail T-Hub alerts but was blank every single time I checked. It didn't log errors with my synchronisation attempt, it didn't log errors with my earlier software update problem, it simply doesn't list anything.

I've left my biggest complaint to the end, however. What upsets me most about the T-Hub is its lack of answering machine facility.

This is particularly annoying because there may be others who, like myself, are swapping out an aging combo phone/fax/answering machine for the T-Hub. While I can get by without the fax in this day and age the answering machine is indispensable.

Telstra's own T-Hub marketing videos show voicemail in action, with a listing of messages received displayed on screen. These videos show the user able to select which message to listen to, and with the caller's number or name against it.

This is true, and in fact, it does look quite nice. However, messages only stay put for three days before being deleted automatically and you cannot record your own greeting. Your callers will hear the stock standard Telstra 101 home messaging greeting.

Actually, that's not quite true. You can set your own greeting and you can extend the lifetime of messages to seven days but only by subscribing to Telstra messagebank for $6/month. I can't help but be disappointed by this. It's almost enough to make me consider rigging up a small answering machine again.

Messages left for you can be retrieved online in MyInbox and if you are away from home for more than a few days you will absolutely need to check this or just simply risk losing unplayed messages to automated purging.


To be fair, to get the most out of the T-Hub you also really need to turn on call number display which is similarly $6/month but that is almost a no-brainer in general and can be justified far more easily. By contrast, it almost seems extortionate to be told you can only record your own greeting if you cough up a further $6 each month.

Nevertheless, the T-Hub is a great piece of kit. It certainly serves as advertising for Telstra by hooking into so many of its services, but this is to the benefit of the user who will find it easier to do things with their phone than before, or indeed able to do things of which they were previously unaware.

The T-Hub does look poised to become a legitimate part of the modern busy and high-tech lifestyle. Check the headlines before you head off to work in the morning. Surf Facebook while cooking dinner. Tune in to an Internet radio station while eating, and use it as a digital photo frame during the day. You could almost forget it is a telephone.

 

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David M Williams

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David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. Within two years, he returned to his alma mater, the University of Newcastle, as a UNIX systems manager. This was a crucial time for UNIX at the University with the advent of the World-Wide-Web and the decline of VMS. David moved on to a brief stint in consulting, before returning to the University as IT Manager in 1998. In 2001, he joined an international software company as Asia-Pacific troubleshooter, specialising in AIX, HP/UX, Solaris and database systems. Settling down in Newcastle, David then found niche roles delivering hard-core tech to the recruitment industry and presently is the Chief Information Officer for a national resources company where he particularly specialises in mergers and acquisitions and enterprise applications.

 

 

 

 

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