After the Beep: DSE F-8011 & ion by Telstra Digital Answering Machines

The humble voice call by telephone has been with us for many years, but with the popularity of land-lines fading, it seems that the traditional voice call may be headed towards obscurity. As a synchronous communication, it requires both caller and callee to be present at the same time to deliver the message with (normally) no record of the call unless one is intentionally made. If the callee is unavailable, their telephone would “ring out” and you’d have to call again.

One solution to this is the answering machine, with earlier machines using tape-based recording such as an endless loop compact cassette for outgoing messages and a regular compact cassette for incoming messages. Later, more compact units used just a single microcassette, spooling rapidly between the outgoing message and end-of-received-messages to achieve the same function. Finally, as processing power increased and memory prices decreased, solid-state answering machines using DRAM (and later, EEPROM/Flash) became available, although by now, the market was starting to wane.

The reason for this was that carriers started to offer their own answering machine “in the cloud network”. One such product was Telstra Messagebank, but more generically, it’s now known as voicemail. This allows extra benefits such as being able to take messages when the line is engaged or out of service, with greater capacity, quality, random-access and remote retrieval capabilities. On land-lines, this was offered as an added-cost extra, whereas on mobile phones, it is commonly included in the package as they will sometimes be switched off or out of coverage.

Of course, if you didn’t want to pay the extra and you didn’t want to miss a call, you’d have your own answering machine. I remember fondly, back in the days of my youth preparing to leave the house – one crucial step was to turn on the answering machine so we wouldn’t miss any calls.

Dick Smith Electronics F-8011

This particular unit appears to be a relatively late model DSE (Dick Smith Electronics) solid-state telephone answering machine, model F-8011. This unit was donated to me by a reader of the blog – you might be wondering why I’d even want an answering machine, let alone a DSE product. I guess I was just curious about what is inside and how it sounded – as my recollections of early solid-state answering machines were quite negative both in terms of recording time and of their audio quality. I also wanted to feature something which (perhaps) not many other people would – there’s a lot of “really vintage” telephone collectors, but is there anyone taking care of the “semi-modern” telephone stuff?

Anyway, it seems that the unit has become rather yellowed over the years, as is common with beige plastics. This particular unit is a very basic answering machine with and no handset attached. It is Made in China (like we couldn’t tell already) with a REN of 0.5.

The unit needs a 9V DC 300mA supply (none included, but a lab supply always does the trick). The cable is permanently fixed, with a phone jack looping out for a handset which can be connected in-line.

Along the side are mode switches to change the announcing mode, the rings before answer and the volume of the internal speaker.

There is a screw-secured battery flap in the rear where four AAA batteries need to be installed to provide memory back-up. As the audio is likely stored in DRAM, a loss of power would erase all memory and also cause the unit to lose the date and time.

Teardown

Ever curious as to what is inside the rather light-weight unit, I decided to tear it apart right away. Four screws are removed from the base and the shells come apart with a very stiff ribbon attaching the top cover boards to the base. The ribbon is supported by some hot glue. On the single-sided paper-type PCB, we can see that this rather late model unit doesn’t even have any line relays – using an all silicon interface which is fairly impressive.

There are a few capacitors and chips, along with the switches and potentiometers at the edge. But already, there is a resistor in insulation tube – already the PCB looks a bit like a mess owing to the wires sprouting from underneath and on top of the PCB.

On this board, we can see a Zilog SL1925 One-Time Programmable Micro-Controller with 14 I/O lines. The chip has a rather diminutive 512 bytes of OTP memory and 61 bytes of RAM, running at 8MHz. To see something from the company behind the infamous Z80 CPU was a bit of a surprise.

A look on the underside of the paper PCB shows the wires tacked on the rear, along with some ceramic disc capacitors. The PCB is marked EPB768V0 REV1 – somehow it looks like they might need a couple more revisions to iron the issues out.

The top-side assembly has the mic and speaker, along with the button-boards. There is even a label which dates this to 21 September 2001 – ten days after the World Trade Centre attack in the USA. That being said, underneath the metallised cardboard, there are more delicious chips to behold.

I guess the rumours are true – I’ve heard that digital answering machines often used old surplus/recycled DRAM, sometimes those with minor bit errors to store the audio. This seems to be no exception, as a Fairchild 4MBit 70ns DRAM chip is seen, of the kind you might find on a 30-pin SIMM. As it is dated Week 4 of 1995, it is much older than the remainder of the system. It is paired with a Macronix MX93011 DSP for Digital Answering Machines chip. Further bodging can be seen in the above with the wires being an absolute mess.

It seems rather interesting that the sum total of the voice storage for outgoing and incoming messages fits within 512kiB. As a result, some compression is likely to be required – using 8kHz 16-bit 1-channel PCM, we would only be able to store 32.768 seconds of audio. If we dropped this down to 8kHz 4-bit ADPCM, we would have four times more but that is still only 131.072 seconds or just a hair over two minutes. Even with something like Intel IMA 2-bit ADPCM, we would get 262.144s or about 4.36 minutes. It seems likely there is something potentially even more sophisticated to achieve the necessary recording time – many systems were sold with 15-minutes of capacity.

The other side shows a single 7-segment LED display used to provide the message count with two LEDs for status, the remainder of the buttons and a Macronix MX93000KC Special Codec. There’s a green jumper wire here too …

In Action

At first, I grabbed a regular linear DC power supply to run the unit off, but it hums terribly, so I suspect the capacitors may not be in great shape. Instead, I attached it to a DC lab power supply, which made for less hum in the audio. Attached to my Cisco SPA112 ATA to my Raspbx for testing, the unit had very noisy audio recording for incoming messages, with a limit of one minute per incoming message and silence detection to automatically abort recording and hang-up. I tried toggling the answering mode switch but was not able to get OGM-only operation. I was not able to get the remote access to work – I did get a few “blips” but nothing I entered seemed to do much. I was able to record the audio of the system’s voice prompts using my latest telecoil receiver which picks up the magnetic fields at the speaker.

Here are some audio samples:

ion by Telstra

This particular unit was one we owned, however, I don’t recall ever using it much. Initially, I found DECT to be inferior, so we maintained the use of the “easy to eavesdrop” 30/40Mhz cordless system for a long longer than we should have. Regardless, I don’t recall how we came across the phone – perhaps there was a sale/promotion/bundle on it, as I don’t think we would have gone out of our way to buy a Telstra branded product …

Regardless, on the box, we can already see it is a relatively “stylish” retractable handset design with a minimalist base. The unit has a trendy negative-LCD (not that I think it really improves anything) and an interface that is flanked by soft-buttons much akin to how the Nokia feature-phones operated. The unit had compatibility with the Telstra Network Features, Caller ID, Message Waiting Indication, SMS, an integrated answering machine, phone book including SIM card import and hands-free capability.

I have no idea what the unit cost, but it doesn’t seem pedestrian just from the looks of it. While the manuals and other inclusions are long lost, the unit is still intact.

The unit is mostly an off-white colour, with a fairly unassuming base with two LEDs, one button and a ringer speaker, using a modified telephone jack for power.

The base is branded just “ion” along the front.

The party trick? A SIM tray on the side where a mini-SIM can be inserted for the contact import feature. The box claims this does not work for 3G SIMs, although I didn’t try it.

Another party trick is the ability for the handset to slide open to reveal the keypad.

The unit physically gets longer when this is done, with a satisfying click. It’s not quite “flip”, but it’s also a good physical tactile action that answers and hangs-up any calls.

The rear of the unit has a cut-out for the ringer speaker, with both sides featuring the Telstra logo and the earpiece featuring the tag-line of “Digital Clarity”.

The more I explore the unit, the more I like it. It seems to be rather sensible in its design. Remember the frustration of custom types of cordless phone batteries and wishing someone would just make a phone you could chuck normal batteries in? Well this is one of them! Two rechargeable AAAs are all it needs – no profiteering from spare parts here!

The power adapter is a little strange with two 6.5V DC secondaries, rated with slightly different currents.

Teardown

Undoing the four screws hidden in the base, we find one PCB that is the brains of the entire operation. Littered with test points on the bottom, there are pads for an I2C/I2S connection on the front edge … rather curious.

The other side of the PCB houses the majority of the components. Again, there is no line relay, with an all silicon interface to the phone line. There is a PCB module with a shielding can over it, which is the DECT radio module. I suspect the modular approach makes switching US/EU DECT bands a matter of soldering a different module, and eases approval requirements.

The biggest chip on the board with a label of DECT68-DAMEPILL-ENGVP seems to be a Philips ARM SoC of sorts, marked SunC. Next to it appears to be some EEPROM and Flash for storing the data on the ion – no data loss when power is removed, but endurance could be a concern.

Underneath the can is a “gob top” next to what appears to be a Philips radio front-end chip of sorts. The PCB has two wire antennas in orthogonal polarisations for reception diversity.

The SIM slot and the charging pins plug into the PCB – the use of plugs makes it easy to disassemble.

The handset was much more difficult to disassemble – it’s tightly packed and I really didn’t want to break it. However, the flex gave me a good hint – Mango DECT61.

It turns out the ion by Telstra is actually the BT Mango in new clothing. I would have never guessed!

From what I could see, it seems it uses the same sort of DECT module with a single antenna at the top. Potentially the same SoC is under that copper tape – but I didn’t peel it back to check as I didn’t want to damage the unit.

In-Action

The unit appears to date from about 2006, so reviving this one was as simple as plugging it in and putting batteries into the handset. The unit has a very pleasant English accent to all the prompts – no surprises given the British Telecom heritage. The display was still clear, although occasional graphical corruption did occur. Voice quality seemed rather average, as DECT uses compression which affects voice quality. Because of the similarity with menu-driven feature-phones, it was very intuitive to get along with and voice prompts were pretty much unnecessary.

However, the most interesting thing I thought I should try was the SMS feature:

The first screen shows what happens when the phone is idle. The second is the menu for the phonebook. The third illustrates the main menu – selecting TXT, I can then select to write a message, then send it. By default, the SMS service centre is 01983391 – this didn’t seem right to me as for our dialplans, we expect 10 digits for (01) 9833 91xx. I suspected two digits were missing.

I reprogrammed the SMS service centre to an internal Raspbx extension 108 – but when sending a message, I got no call. Examining the logs, the unit placed a call to 10800, so thus the ion has an implied 00 at the end! Calling 01 9833 9100 results in a number disconnected error – perhaps not available from my carrier, so I wonder if Telstra’s SMS service centre supports the ion anymore?

Regardless, I tried answering the call with a Rockwell-based modem using every combination of AT+MS (modulation select) command I could muster but the unit did not link. Instead, it always responds with a burst of FSK after a time-out and hangs up – sounding like this. It sounds like 1200bps FSK, perhaps a variant of caller-ID FSK for this specific purpose.

The unit also has a lot of interesting handset ring-tones which hail from the polyphonic generation – in order, the melodies are labelled odeon, whimsical, jaunty, pizazz, vibe, march, madcap, melody 1, melody 2, melody 3, melody 4, melody 5, chime 1, chime 2 and jazz. The base ring-tones are a much less inspiring selection of five very “square” monophonic ringing patterns.

Audio samples of the answering system are as follows:

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the mechanical tape variety of answering machine is not something I have anymore as the mechanisms have failed or they have been carelessly disposed of many years ago. Despite this, it was interesting to revive the answering machine and DECT system for a quick test and tear them apart to see their insides just to see what made later-model answering machines work. It was also nice to hear them again – along with the default outgoing messages and clunky voice menu systems.

The ion by Telstra was especially interesting, as a very “late” model device, it even had the ability to send and receive SMS on landlines – a feature I didn’t even know existed for residential users. I had a chance to poke about to see how it worked, but the exact details are still not known, although it seems to emit a short burst of FSK before giving up. It also has much more extensive voice prompts and non-volatile memory.

Just like many things associated with the telephone, it seems the traditional voice call is starting to fade away. Aside from this inconvenience of needing to be available at the same time, it also inducing anxiety amongst callees and is rapidly being overtaken by mobile phones with HD Voice, VoIP systems which offer higher quality and video capabilities; or asynchronous communications such as instant messaging, e-mail and SMS which offer a record of communications and time to produce a considered reply (if one is necessary) despite being somewhat less personal. Even the concept of voicemail is considered outdated, as the time taken to review them is considered unproductive and excessive.

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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