VoIPower Your Office: Polycom and SipX�Like a Horse and Carriage

by Carla Schroder

SipX gives you numerous endpoint choices. Consider these two feature-filled desk phones from phone specialist Polycom.

Polycom is a rather strange company, as they seem to be working hard to make good VoIP hard phones that are easy to administer and use. This is so against the grain of your typical modern high-tech vendor that I had to take another look just to make sure. The nice folks at Pingtel sent me two Polycom phones to test: the Soundpoint IP 430 and the Soundpoint IP 650. The short story is these are nice phones with a lot of good features, and they are well integrated with SipX.

When you're setting up your own VoIP system, you face a multitude of phone decisions—keep your legacy analog phones, buy new IP hard phones, or use software phones?

You can keep your old analog phones in service for around $30–$60 each. For example, the Linksys SPA-2002 two-port FXS adapter currently sells for about $70. These types of devices are more than just plugins; they also come with a lot of nice features like call blocking, distinctive ring, three-way conferencing, message-waiting indicators, and everything else they can think of to stuff into the device's firmware. Even with all of this, you're not going to get all the features your VoIP server is capable of delivering because of the limitations of old-fashioned analog telephones. But it's a good option to have and it lets you migrate at your own pace. Or maybe you'll never need all the fancy stuff at all.

The cheapskates among us (raise your hands in pride!) like using free softphones, like KPhone, Ekiga, and X-Lite. These aren't exactly free, though, because you still need a microphone and speakers or a headset. I prefer a good-quality USB headset, and these are hard to find for under $60. Then you might find that the softphone that does what you really want is going to cost a few bucks. Then you get tired of being tethered to your computer, so you go shopping for a wireless headset, and then you're spending some real money. And it still makes a dent in your hair.

Good hard phones cost the most up front, but in some ways represent the best value. They're not tied to user's computers, they are software-upgradeable, comfortable to use, and the good ones deliver great sound quality. Some folks think they sound even better than old-fashioned analog phones, though I suspect that might be a bit of "I paid a lot for this so it better be good" attitude speaking.

Soundpoint IP 430
This little gem retails for around $169, though I'm sure canny shoppers can find a better deal. IP telephony turned telephone network architecture upside-down; the old-fashioned PSTN is a smart network with dumb endpoints. Now we have smart networks and smarter endpoints. It has a gazillion-and-one features, so I'm going to hit the high points:

  •  Two lines with local 3-way conferencing, call transfer, hold, mute, and forward
  •  Individual audio controls for each line
  •  Echo cancellation and adaptive jitter buffer
  •  Contact directory and call history
  •  Context-sensitive menu keys
  •  Speakerphone
  •  Headset port
It supports the G.711 and G.729A codecs. G.711 is a free, uncompressed codec that delivers good audio quality. It's the native language of the digital telephone system. G.729A is a good-quality compressed codec that you have to pay a licensing fee to use. Because SipX does SIP routing the way it is supposed to, your bandwidth will be used more efficiently, so you may be perfectly happy without compressed codecs.

Every time I unpack a new hard phone I think "Holy plugins! How many more miles of cabling will I have to run?" Because each phone requires an Ethernet port and a power plugin. The SoundPoints support power-over-Ethernet, so using PoE means you'll only need an Ethernet port. PoE adapters range from single-port adapters to multi-port managed switches.

Soundpoint IP 650
This little beauty is in the same family as the 430, only bigger and better. It's billed for "executive users" and attendants, but with all of its additional features I don't see too many executives using it. It's more suited as an executive secretary tool. The base unit supports 6 lines; with expansion modules up to 12.

The IP 650 supports G.711 and G.729A, plus the G.722.1 wideband codec. It is called wideband because it delivers 7kHz of audio at 50-7,000 Hz. Traditional telephones are "narrowband," using 300-3,500 Hz range. The bandwidth price for this nice audio? Less than G.711. G.722.1 supports bitrates of 16-, 24-, and 32 kilobits per second. Its final bit of wonderfulness is all this audio goodness comes at a low computational price. This is the kind of codec that makes good audio/video telephony a real possibility, and not just a herky-jerky pipe dream.

There is no free lunch—it's patented, and Polycom owns the patent. Since both endpoints must support the same codec, you're only going to experience all this G.722.1 wonderfulness with supported devices, including servers and headsets. SipX versions 3.6 and up support G.722.1.

Both modules have well-thought-out keypads, with dedicated buttons for speaker, headset, mute, messages, redial, and menu. My one gripe is that the number buttons are rather small for comfort. I have small hands, so I wonder how comfortable someone with big fingers is going to be. Both phones can either wall- or desk- mounted.

Provisioning these phones is so easy you'll throw a party to celebrate. There are some gotchas, so come back next time to learn more about Painless Polycom Provisioning.

User and administrator manuals are online at Polycom IP430 and Polycom IP 650
VoIPowering Your Office: Meet SipX, the SIP iPBX Server for Linux
VoIPowering Your Office: Installing SipX
VoIPowering Your Office: Recovering SipX Passwords and DNS Done Right
VoIPowering Your Office: SipX and IP Phones
VoIPowering Your Office: Connect SipX to Analog Phone Lines
VoIPowering Your Office: Cool Tools for SipX

This article was originally published on Monday Apr 9th 2007