Not so long ago, I wrote an article on Asterisk and open source VoIP in general. In my discussion with Mark Spencer, the founder of Digium and the Asterisk project, he recommended Polycom as the phone vendor he would choose for an Asterisk deployment. In the same article, I profiled Summer Bay Resorts, which runs Asterisk across multiple call centres and hundreds of agents, all with Polycom phones. You might think Polycom is onto something.

Polycom is known to most as the producer of the "boomerang" conference room speakerphone. With their instantly recognisable tricorn shape, these phones can be found in nearly every conference room. The rest of the product line hasn't received the same level of attention, but my time with the Polycom SoundPoint IP 650 executive phones shows that they deserve it. In addition to its wired sets, Polycom recently acquired SpectraLink and its VoIP Wi-Fi technology. I tested several SpectraLink Wi-Fi sets, a few IP 650 sets, and yes, the VoIP version of that ubiquitous speakerphone.

All three phones were tested with Asterisk running under Trixbox 2.0, and used with a variety of trunks, from ATA (Analogue Telephone Adapter) bridges to the PSTN to pure SIP trunks served via BroadVoice. As with all VoIP phone tests, I tend to use my Cisco 7970 phone as the touchstone, since it's arguably the most advanced IP phone available on the market today.

There's still plenty of room to grow in this space, and as of yet, I haven't found the truly perfect VoIP phone. Given that VoIP roll-outs require a variety of phone types to meet needs throughout the enterprise, standardising on a single phone vendor is really the only way to go. It means less hassle, easier configuration, and smoother implementation. Collectively, these units show that Polycom is serious about VoIP and SIP telephony. The Polycom line has a little something for everyone, including lower-end handsets that I didn't test for this article. Especially in an Asterisk environment, Polycom phones are clear winners.

No. 1: SoundPoint IP 650 SIP desk phone

The SoundPoint IP 650 phone is Polycom's flagship model. Boasting a large paper-white display, six line buttons, a speakerphone, headset jack, and SIP functionality, the IP 650 is meant for the executive desk. It also features a direct-in power source, PoE, CDP (Cisco Discovery Protocol), and a 10/100 PC switch-port with 802.1q trunking.

Set-up and configuration of the IP 650, as for the rest of Polycom's SIP line, uses an FTP, TFTP (Trivial FTP), or HTTP server to deliver configuration files to each phone based on the phone's MAC address. This means you can feed global configuration files to every phone simply by listing the file name within the appropriate XML tag in the phone-specific configuration file. This method permits a truly modular configuration platform to be developed and delivered, although as with any XML-based configuration, the files can get somewhat unwieldy when they reach a certain size.

The basis of the phone's configuration and application set is the Polycom firmware release. The phones will not function without a valid app set that is loaded on boot, and firmware upgrades are performed in a similar fashion: If the phone boots and one of the configuration files references a newer release than the phone is currently using, the new release is pulled down and loaded into the phone's flash.

Configuring each phone for use with Asterisk was a snap; all I had to do was change a few lines in the phone-specific configuration to note the Asterisk server address and assign extension, extension secret, and the text to display on the phone itself. The rest of the phone's configuration is handled via DHCP or by hard-coding the parameters within the phone itself. Using DHCP to deliver the required data is very simple, requiring that a few options be defined with the IP address of the FTP or TFTP server. As long as the required files exist on that server, all is well.

Once the phone is operational, you have a wide variety of configuration and status options to choose from. With the admin code, it's even possible to get live network, CPU, and memory utilisation graphs to display right on the phone, and the phone's full configuration is available during normal operation and at boot time. Further, a Web interface for each phone lets you make changes to the configuration, but surprisingly doesn't offer the option to reset or reboot the phone.

As far as call quality goes, the IP 650 is simply stellar. In fact, this is one of the best-sounding VoIP handsets I've ever used, with any codec. The noise cancellation is superb, and at times a little unsettling because the silence is so silent you begin to wonder if the call has been disconnected. On the downside, the default ring tones are annoying; only the lone sampled ring isn't terrible. There are slots for many more custom sampled ring tones though, so anything you can distill into a sample can be used. The message waiting light on the IP 650 works perfectly with Asterisk, as does the messaging menu on the LCD screen. (Here I might point out that my Cisco 7970 still doesn't properly handle a SIP message waiting signal.) Also, the IP 650 handled the long-cable-run PoE test better than any other phone I've tried, including the Cisco 7960. Whereas the 7960 would power up but eventually flake out, the IP 650 works flawlessly.

The IP 650 can also run custom applications to deliver corporate directories, interactive services, and the like right to the phone, using the built-in XHTML browser. The browser is relatively finicky though, and warnings in the documentation tell tales of phones rebooting and locking up when parsing invalid XHTML syntax.

The Polycom SoundPoint IP 650 is a solid, well-rounded VoIP handset that will not disappoint. At $449 (£225) MSRP, it's also cheaper than many high-end VoIP phones.

OUR VERDICT

An attractive and compelling executive VOIP phone with plenty of high-end features and excellent voice quality.