VoIP Phones: Which Are Best for Your Business?

Updated: November 24, 2009

"This answer depends on three factors: what you are looking for in an IP phone, how much you want to spend and which hosted or premise VoIP provider you decide to sign with," said Carly Wild, a telephony analyst at Focus. "If you are looking for more robust functionality in an IP phone or like the look of a big, fancy phone at the front desk or in your office, I would definitely look into Cisco. Cisco tends to be pretty expensive so purchasing one of their IP phones gives off a certain image to your potential and existing clients that functionality matters more to you than price does. Some hosted solutions also work with Linksys routers ([from] a division of Cisco) so the clearest connection will most likely be with their IP phones.

"Polycom offers similar functionality for about a third of the price," Ms. Wild added. "The phones are more standard and the company specializes in call bridges. Most hosted phone systems are compatible with Polycom phones so if something happens with the service you sign with and you have to find another provider, you will still be able to use your Polycom IP phones. The same rule of thumb generally works with premises-based systems, unless it's proprietary [in architecture] such as Avaya, which only works with Avaya IP phones.

"Aastra also has nice phones and specializes in working with open-source [standards-compliant] phone systems. Most hosted providers aren't compatible with [phones from] this company but if you are looking for a cost-effective solution, they are a great contender in the market," Ms. Wild concluded.

Focus community member Richard Williams has been providing hosted telephony solutions in the UK since 2005. "I have used Cisco and Polycom [and] in my experience Cisco gets the vote every time. [Cisco phones] are robust and intuitive handsets, not something I would say about Polycom. With hosted solutions Polycom can take up to 3 minutes to re-boot following a broadband outage - Cisco [response time] is immediate."

In some cases, it may make sense to deploy more than one vendor's telephones. "We use both Aastra and Polycom phones connect to a Fonality PBX," wrote Andrew Mosson, Focus Expert and CTO at Focus. "While the Aastra phones cost about 1/3 as much as the Polycom phones (for a similar feature set), the Polycom phones have much better sound quality, especially when using the speakers. For our organization we decided to issue the Aastras to folks who have light duty (e.g. engineers, design, etc.) and Polycoms to everyone else," Mr. Mosson said.

Your choice of phones may also be affected by whether or not your organization is willing to configure and connect the phones to the chosen PBX system, "Most phone system vendors offer phones [as well] and will charge you to pre-configure the phone to work with their system. (I think this may [cost] up to $50/phone in our case). Polycom phones do offer a nice HTML configuration interface, [so] if you are willing to do the configuration yourself, you can shop around for the best price," Mr. Mosson added.

Another Focus community member, Robert Agnew, manager of voice products for Iowa Network Services, also has experience with all three of these vendors. "All three in my opinion are relatively easy to configure from a configuration file perspective. Firmware and Boot ROMs can be a bit more of a headache on the Polycom and Cisco lines particularly if you have a variety of models in use; Aastra seems to be the easiest to manage," Mr. Agnew said

Vendor responsiveness can be as critical a differentiator as specific telephone features. "Occasionally we've needed to reach out to the manufacturer for assistance or clarification on configuration and operation of one of the phones. Aastra hands down has proven to be the most accessible and forthcoming with information in a timely manner, we can speak to an engineer generally the same day we make an inquiry. Cisco and Polycom aren't quite as accessible or quick to respond," Mr. Agnew said.

"I consider the Cisco phones to be the Cadillac phone with a price tag that comes with it. In my opinion the Polycom speakerphones are hands down the best out there, we've had some issues with some of the older phones, however, such as DTMF keypads failing after only 2-3 years in an office environment. If I had to make a bulk phone purchase today it would be Aastra based on the value for the money and the support available from the manufacturer," Mr. Agnew concluded.

Chris Nordman, Focus Expert and manager, lead qualification at Focus, has experience with all three of the above phone brands as an end-user. He agrees that users should consider price, configuration and set-up before making a final decision, and offers some additional observations below.

"Cisco: Like most Cisco end-user products, they blow you away with the visuals (hence the promotion of such products on TV shows like "24"). The screen is bigger and more colorful than anything else I have seen on the market or directly interacted with. Control with soft keys is intuitive, and sound quality and volume are great. If you have the money to spend, Cisco phones are a great product, but spending SEVERAL hundred dollars for a handset is a big investment. A Cisco phone is great for meeting rooms, front offices or executives who want to impress clients with cool technology.

"Polycom: This is my everyday phone. It lacks the pizzazz of the Cisco, but functionality, sound quality and volume are top notch, especially for the price. Customizing user features is straightforward enough for anyone with even the most basic technology skills. I agree with Richard on the boot up time; somewhat long. These are great for the everyday user who doesn't mind having the look of a utilitarian phone on their desk (when compared to Cisco, that is).

"Aastra: Very basic in both look and functionality. The Aastra phone I used was much smaller than the Polycom and Cisco and seemed to have fewer buttons and options. From what I have seen, these are generally a fraction of the cost of competitors. I never found issues with sound quality or volume and boot-up speed does not seem overwhelmingly long," Mr. Nordman said.

It may also be worth looking beyond market leaders and best-known vendors, Mr. Nordman added. "Another vendor you may want to check out is Snom. I do not have direct experience with any of the models, but they look competitive with Cisco in terms of look and innovation; Snom just launched a touch screen desktop phone that looks cool."

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