5 Cool Functions to Look For in VoIP Phones

Updated: May 01, 2007

You may not currently have a huge choice in buying VoIP phones. After all, most companies buy phones that work with their PBX es, not the other way around. You're often limited to your PBX vendor 's proprietary or third party vendor-certified models -- at least until session initiation protocol (SIP) is mature and ubiquitous enough to become the standard (that might take a while).

Still, when you have a little leeway to choose among either vendors or models, a number of factors can determine how easily you can live with your decision. Here are 5 cool functions to look for.

1. Is this my phone, or is it my PC?

A lot of developments have come together to make VoIP desk phones capable of doing things your grandfather's -- make that your older brother's -- phone couldn't begin to. Start with soft keys, those programmable buttons that change depending on your task at hand. Add big, bright color LCDs that show, in words or pictures, what pressing each key will accomplish. And display step-by-step instructions via intuitive graphics, rather than having to dig through a manual written by engineers. The result: a phone that can be as comfortable and familiar to use as some of the better PCs or consumer devices around.

Include one more development: the integration between increasingly capable and user-friendly VoIP phones, and applications running on enterprise servers. It means that (with the right IP PBX and network architecture) you'll be able to do everything on your desk set from reading and answering email, to accessing corporate databases and viewing a video message from the CEO on that big bright screen. But the quality of the user interface and the application integration are crucial. If they're more confusing to use than your cellphone, you might want to take a pass.

2. A whole gigabit, just so I can talk?

Since 8Kbps can be enough to carry a voice conversation, you might think a gigabit Ethernet connection would be overkill. It's up-and-coming in desktop VoIP phones though. The reason: VoIP phones and computers are both data devices. Connecting both of them to the corporate LAN takes up 2 data ports. But if you can hook your computer to your phone, and your phone to your LAN, you halve the number of ports your office network needs. Until recently, most phones have been designed to connect at the 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps speeds that accounted for the bulk of office LANs. Now, GigE enterprise networks, and computers and applications that take advantage of such speeds, are becoming more commonplace. That means purchasing GigE-capable phones will earn you bonus points for future-proofing your company's IP telephony system.

3. HD? I thought that was for TV.

HD Voice is a Polycom term, but it highlights a broader trend in desk phones. Manufacturers are doing a lot to improve the sound quality of conversations, on the theory that if you can work more efficiently, you don't have to struggle to hear and be heard. One significant effort involves the use of wideband codecs, which sample voice audio 16,000 times a second, rather than 8,000 times, as telephones have done since 1915. This opens up all kinds of possibilities in terms of increased clarity. It might even make it easier for your supplier's interactive voice response system to understand that you're having trouble with your order, not that you want to double your order.

4. Give me them wide open spaces.

There's call quality, and then there's speaker phone quality. The big push these days is to make desk phones function as well as specialized conference room speaker phones, so you can work out of the boardroom while the SEC is examining your hard drive. But doing that takes some clever physical design. One trick is to put as much space as possible between the microphone and the speaker, so they won't interfere with each other. That means widening the base as much as possible without making your desktop phone bigger than your laptop computer. Another trick is leaving a big empty space behind the speaker, to let the sound resonate like in high-end audio systems. Handy reminder: when phone vendors talk about audio cavities, they aren't talking about putting a microphone in your tooth.

5. Look, Ma, no moving parts!

Siemens may be ahead of Steve Jobs in making touch controls cool. Their recently introduced line of OpenStage phones lets you control all kinds of things without moving buttons or levers. You increase volume, for example, by simply sliding your finger from left to right along a slot, a blue glow in the slot extending to show how loud you've made things. The soft keys and iPod-like navigation wheel are similarly touch sensitive.

The keypad uses conventional push buttons, though, which makes sense when you're trying to dial without looking. Speaking of which, does the phone you're considering have a nib of just the right size on the 5 key, so you can navigate the keypad by feel alone? Manufacturers take such things seriously, and so should you, if you spend a lot of time dialing numbers that aren't in your online directory.

The importance of coolness

There are a lot of other things to consider, especially the various forms of wireless connectivity, but don't forget to ask yourself one thing: Does the phone look cool enough? We mean, you don't want to spend all day, every day of the year, looking at a device that looks like Bill Gates designed it, do you? We didn't think so.

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