Verizon Hub shines as a phone, but the rest of it has flaws

Verizon Wireless wants to be your home phone and cellphone company. Except the Verizon Hub that aims to bridge those worlds is pricey, confusing and saddled with drawbacks.

The Hub, which went on sale in Verizon Wireless stores Sunday, is a hybrid contraption consisting of a cordless, single-line VoIP, or Internet phone, and a 7-inch touch-screen-based Internet terminal. It looks good, and Verizon is pushing its use in the kitchen, where, among other things, you can view cooking demonstrations.

But the product is way too cumbersome. Folks looking to ditch their land-line phone to save money in this economy should hold off.

The Hub costs $200 (after a $50 mail-in rebate) with a two-year contract, on top of a $35 monthly fee. The monthly plan includes unlimited calling in North America, Puerto Rico and elsewhere, and unlimited text, picture and video messaging. That's $10 more than a basic plan with rival Vonage.

Of course, the Hub does things other VoIP phones don't, from letting you check traffic reports to letting the kids watch Dora the Explorer. One of the interesting features is the way it integrates with cellphones on the Verizon Wireless network. But you'll need a separate Verizon cell plan, even if you have no interest in using it to communicate with cellular handsets. Verizon told me it's looking to remove this onerous requirement.

A closer look at the Hub's features — and flaws:

•The basics. The Hub works with any broadband connection — Verizon or otherwise. You can connect an ethernet cable or use Wi-Fi. If you don't already have a router, Verizon will sell you one for $70. Extra handsets cost $80.

Setup was a breeze and took about 15 minutes. You can customize some features on the Hub and some via the Web. On the Web is where you can upload pictures; the Hub doubles as a digital photo frame, though it's mainly a screen-saver function and hard to manage.

•Managing calls. The Hub shines as a phone. It's packed with useful calling features: visual voice mail, anonymous-call rejection, call rerouting to a designated backup number and more.

Unlike rival Internet phones, it's also meant to complement the cellphones in your Verizon Wireless network. So if you subscribe to Verizon's Chaperone family-finder service, you can use the Hub to locate your kid's Verizon phone on a map. If you subscribe to the VZ Navigator location-based service, you can find an address on the Hub via convenient on-screen directories and send it to a Verizon cell from which you get turn-by-turn directions.

But in some ways, the Hub is too tight with Verizon cellphones. You can send text and picture messages from the Hub to a Verizon cellphone and receive messages in return. But you cannot send or receive texts from cellphones outside the Verizon Wireless network. You can use a stylus (or your fingers) to tap a text message on the Hub's on-screen virtual keyboard — there's no physical keyboard.

Major omission: You cannot sync your cellphone calendars, address books or any other content with the Hub. (Contacts are synced with the cordless handsets.) You have to manually enter calendar entries and phone contacts in the Hub.

This was a hassle. When I tried entering a doctor's appointment by typing in "Dr.," a pop-up indicated that the entry could not be saved, because "only alphanumeric characters are allowed in Event Title." I had to enter "Dr" without the period. Verizon says that'll be addressed in a software update.

You cannot specify the length of an appointment, either. And the Hub would benefit from multiple calendars, perhaps one for each family member.

It's worth noting that the Hub does not take advantage of technology that lets you begin a call on the cell in your car and resume the conversation on the cordless handset at home.

•No substitute for a computer. You can peek at the time or weather. You can access traffic, summon a calculator, watch movie trailers and buy tickets. And you can watch videos via Verizon's V Cast, covering news, entertainment and kids fare.

But you can't surf the Web or check e-mail. And some V Cast content, even from such partners as Fox and ESPN, was surprisingly stale. Even after the Super Bowl, I was looking at football segments dating back to the Plaxico Burress shooting in November.

•Begging for more. Many problems are fixable. Verizon Wireless can update the device through software. Internet radio would be welcome. So would widgets for stocks, games or online photos. And a browser. Future hardware might benefit from a memory card slot and camera — the Hub could be a natural video phone. Verizon would also be wise to ditch the contract requirements.

For now, I'm sticking with my land-line relic.