How do you choose the right IP phone for your business? To help you answer that, we offer the following broad, third-party review of IP phones from Aastra, Grandstream, Polycom and Snom. We also explore the question, “What makes a good IP phone?”
To find a quality IP phone, start by looking at Polycom IP phones. On their Website, Polycom states they provide “best in class voice, video and telepresence.” Many would agree that Polycom is indeed the global leader in Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) phone manufacturing. What gives Polycom IP phones an edge over the others?
As some background, Polycom has an edge over their competitors because they were one of the first manufacturers to ship IP phones, debuting their SoundPoint IP 500 in 2001. At the time, Snom had the Snom 100 model on the market but Grandstream wouldn’t deploy their first phone until 2003. Aastra didn’t arrive on scene until 2006 with their 480i. These early years were critical for Polycom because their phones reflect the extra development time in their maturity.
First advantage of Polycom IP phones: design
What is it about Polycom phones that make them so much more reliable than those from Aastra, Grandstream and Snom? The first noticeable advantage presented by the Polycom phones is that they simply look like modern IP phones-not analog PBX throwbacks. Polycom phones have a large screen with a clear, readable display, and their overall design is modern and sleek. In comparison, Snom phones have only a two-line screen with fewer contrast options. Likewise, using a Snom phone feels similar to using a phone that’s still hard-wired into a PBX in the server closet.
Aastra phones also do not maintain a modern feel and usability. For example, while Aastra phones have an excellent feature where the user can program hard keys to predefined functions, most models require that the user have a pen and paper to record which function he has assigned to each key.
In summary, the Aastra and Snom phones function on par with Polycom phones, but design details such as these make them much less inviting and friendly to users. Does appearance really make such a big difference for a desk phone? Just ask Apple stockholders what they think about the importance of sleek design.
Second Advantage of Polycom IP Phones: Interface
Second advantage of Polycom IP phones: interface
Next, Polycom phones generally have a more intuitive interface than other vendor phones. For example, to find the Polycom phone’s IP address, you press the “Menu” hard key and navigate through a logical sequence of menu choices such as Status > Network > IP Parameters.
On a Snom phone, the IP address is located not under the hard key labeled “Settings” but rather under the “Help” hard key-which has fooled more than one admin. Also, using a Snom phone, a user must put a person on hold before performing a transfer in most instances. One can infer this process isn’t intuitive based on the (current) four videos on YouTube demonstrating it.
On the other hand, all Polycom transfers are initiated via the “Transfer” soft key or hard key. In fact, the Polycom default feature set works precisely as you would expect. The most common functions have hard keys and soft keys (and the soft keys are easy to read). The design is sensible, requiring little learning curve for new users.
Third Advantage of Polycom IP Phones: Hardware
Third advantage of Polycom IP phones: hardware
Polycom has also made some good hardware decisions, ensuring the materials used do not have a cheap feeling to the touch or to the ear-both of which can detract from the user experience.
In contrast, Grandstream specializes in some of the lowest cost phones and the price is reflected in the hardware. Their low and mid-range lines of phones have less sound quality and, although it’s been fixed on the newer models, speakerphones on Grandstreams are often unclear.
Polycom phones are sturdy, responsive and clear. Users who experience a G.722 call for the first time may be startled by the clarity, from the handset to the speakerphone.
Fourth advantage of Polycom IP phones: software
Of course, the phone would be nothing with poor software, but Polycom phones get high marks in this category too. They have a well-documented firmware release cycle and are relatively quick to fix problems. They adhere to the SIP Request for Comments (RFCs). While a boot server is required for configuring advanced options, the hundreds of possibilities are noted clearly in the administrator’s guides that are released with each major firmware release. This documentation simplifies any sophisticated deployment.
Fifth Advantage of Polycom IP Phones: Usability
Fifth advantage of Polycom IP phones: usability
While the aforementioned attributes are related to user usability, it is important to also explore usability from an administrator’s perspective. From an administrator’s perspective, even Polycom phones aren’t perfect. Reboot times, although improved on the latest generation of Polycom phones (SoundPoint IP 550, etc.), are still among the slowest in the industry. Even the SoundPoint IP 550 clocks require nearly a minute for its reboot cycle-which doesn’t seem significant until you have to configure more than one.
Manual phone configuration requires at least two reboots, providing that you made no mistakes and entered the SIP password correctly the first time. The use of a boot server to hand out individualized configuration files makes this process significantly easier, but configuration can be a long process without one.
The Polycom phones’ Web interface is basic, as the majority of advanced features are unavailable, and it has no troubleshooting utilities. Snom, on the other hand, provides SIP traces and pcap dumps, which is very useful. Upgrading the firmware requires that you run a Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP) server of your own; it would be more convenient if Polycom would run a public one, as Grandstream does.
Still, the aforementioned attributes are notable defects when you’re an administrator. Once the phone is configured and on the desk, you’ll rarely need to reboot or reconfigure, and these inconveniences are quickly forgotten.
So, what is the perfect IP phone? It is a phone with a modern look, an intuitive interface, quality hardware, and an easy configuration and update process. Manufacturing the perfect IP phone at a competitive price may be a tall order. But, so far, we think Polycom does a better job than most at this. We will be interested to see who meets them at the finish line.
Charlotte Oliver is a Systems Engineer at Junction Networks. She has been working in the telecommunications and technology industry since 1998. Prior to Junction Networks, she worked for RCN. Charlotte is a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA). She can be reached at [email protected].