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In Use

I initially installed both phones in my office, one replacing my aged IP600 and the other at a workbench. I had both phones register with a hosted PBX provider.

The initial setup was very easy, since I had been using Polycom phones already. I merely pointed the phones at my existing provisioning FTP server located in the UK. But in my haste to quickly get set up, it did not occur to me that they were loaded with v3.0 firmware; newer than my other phones were using. And so when I renamed an existing config file to assign it to the IP650, I accidentally reprovisioned it with v2.x firmware. Oops! My mistake.

A quick call to Polycom tech support got me the v3.0 firmware distribution and I uploaded it to a separate folder on my FTP server. From that point onward, the IP650 and IP550 were loaded with v3.02 again. Happily, the license key enabling the optional Polycom Productivity Suite is held in nonvolatile memory, so it survived the firmware transitions.

Once in operation, I found that the phones acted just like nicer versions of my old favorites. The message waiting indication worked correctly with the hosted PBX, which can be a problem witih some phones. Also the voicemail button worked to jump quickly into retrieving messages.

The only problem I encountered was when initially trying to use the local call recording feature on the IP650. It appeared that it was happy with a 2 GB SanDisk Cruzer Micro USB key that I had on hand. However, when it got far enough into recording a call that it needed to start writing to the memory key, the phone froze, then spontaneously rebooted a few seconds later. This turns out to be the result of not using a supported USB key. When I later acquired two approved USB keys, the call recording feature worked flawlessly.

Later in the review period, I sent the IP 550 to a co-worker in our LA area office, where it replaced an old IP 501 on his desk. With the two phones in different offices, the significance of HD Voice was readily apparent. Calls between these offices via our hosted PBX were impressively clear. We even discovered that our hosting provider was able to support HD Voice over its conference bridge, allowing us to have clearer staff meetings.

As for reliability, Polycom phones are amongst the most reliable computing devices I’ve ever encountered. These two new models carry on that trend. I encountered no problems at all during the months I spent with the phones, even though both were running the relatively new v3.02 firmware.

Closing Thoughts

It's not easy to directly compare IP phones without also considering a long list of possible features and the target users' exact requirements. However, there are a limited number of players that are common in SOHO and SMB VoIP installations.

Table 1 lists eight common SIP phones from four major manufacturers in the mid to high end of what might be considered for our target user. What becomes clear is that, advanced features aside, both the IP 650 and IP 550 are competitive on a purely a price basis.

Manufacturer Model Price
Aastra 9480i $192.99
Snom 360 $219.99
Aastra 57i $224.99
Polycom SoundPoint IP 550 $246.99**
Polycom SoundPoint IP 650 $299.99**
Snom 370 $299.99
Cisco 7940G $349.95*
Cisco 7960G $399.95*
*Cisco prices include the required software licensing cost
**Polycom prices do not include optional Productivity Suite
Table 1: Comparable SIP phones

Cisco's phones tend to be considered the high end of the business IP phone market and they certainly are on price. Cisco gets top dollar for the hardware, then requires more money for the software license to actually use the phone. In contrast, the IP 550 and 650 are less expensive and don't have an additional licensing cost.

Both the IP 550 and 650 slid transparently into my operation, replacing less expensive older Polycom models that had been in service for a couple of years. My experience is that this is fairly typical; most SOHO/SMB VoIP installations use less expensive models as a means of cost control. But I now think that perhaps this is short sighted.

In an installation where there are only a small number of handsets, the cost of using phones like the IP 550 and 650 is likely to be small relative to the overall cost of the installation. Yet by using the better model, we bring into play numerous features and conveniences.

Further, for companies with several locations using IP to reduce toll costs between locations, the HD Voice capabilities can significantly enhance the call experience. In my case, this means understanding my UK associates a little better during staff meetings; catching vocal inflections that I would have otherwise missed and occasionally even getting their jokes.

The optional Productivity Suite seems like a complete no-brainer since any one of the features included could easily justify the small additional cost. In my case, the ability to record calls on the IP 650 was completely worth the cost of admission. On the strength of that feature alone, I will be ordering one of these for myself when the review units are returned. The additional applications in the Productivity Suite, all very useful, are for me just icing on the cake.

In the realm of telephony, you sometimes see phones referred to as “instruments.”  With many inexpensive IP phones the term seems overly formal. They just don’t look or feel impressive. Design and build quality may have been sacrificed to create a volume product which will appeal to the cost-conscious buyer. In some cases, this creates a problem that goes further than just the look of the product, especially when performance is affected. 

On the other hand, truly high-quality devices like the SoundPoints look and feel like design and engineering were the top priority of the manufacturer.  When good looks and performance come together, then that is the kind of product that can make CEOs decide they need one on their desk, even if they seldom spend time on the phone.

In closing I’d like to return to an impression that I first had some years ago when I first started using IP phones. If you work for a small company, or in a home office, and live on the phone as much as I do, then life is just too short to get by with a marginal phone. You can’t appreciate the difference between “good enough” and something that is truly exceptional to use without trying it for yourself. The difference in cost is not as much as you might expect. Once you have an understanding of the opportunity for real productivity gains, then it seems quite insignificant.

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