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. 2: SoundStation IP 4000 SIP conference phone

The SoundStation IP 4000 speakerphone shares much with its analogue brethren, including the distinctive boomerang shape and optional outboard microphone pods, but inside it's a whole new ball-game. The IP 4000 runs the same SIP code as the IP 650 and others in the Polycom line, so the options are standard and the configuration process is essentially the same. A few differences belie the fact that the IP 4000 is a slightly older device than the IP 650 sets, however. These are small things, such as different DHCP option defaults and option patterns, but they can be puzzling when trying to figure out why the phone isn't booting properly.

The IP 4000 I received was running a much older 1.6.2 version of the Polycom firmware, versus the current 2.1.1 version, and upgrading it wasn't as automatic as it should be, assuming that the phone boots and locates the boot server properly. The problem was that the IP 4000's default settings for the DHCP server option were different than those in the newer phones. Once I modified these settings to match the later models, the phone booted, updated its firmware, and popped online, ready to go.

The IP 4000 has the same paper-white LCD display as the IP 650, albeit much smaller. It's large enough to do basic navigation and configuration and gives the phone a very cutting-edge look. Although the firmware is the same, the phone is obviously far different than the handset phones. It does not really use PoE as in the 802.3af standard; it uses its own form of PoE with the included outboard injector. The injector is powered by a 19v, 1A power brick that delivers power to the IP 4000 via the included 20-foot heavy-duty Ethernet cable. The injector also houses the Ethernet connection, so it's possible to bury the injector and power supply in a distant corner or under a conference table and link to the IP 4000 with the 20-foot cable, reducing cabling mess. The IP 4000 can also drive two outboard microphone pods for extended reach.

Call quality on the IP 4000 is superb. I ran it in a mix of environments, from very quiet offices to a noisy lab with lots of ambient noise. Talking to folks on land lines and cellphones, I found that the IP 4000's noise cancellation could overcome high levels of external noise and deliver reasonably crisp audio. In fact, it performed quite well even when placed directly between the speaker and a loud air conditioner. At $1,099 (£550) MSRP, it's not a cheap solution, but it's arguably the best of breed. The heritage of the IP 4000 is full of top performers, and this edition is no different.

OUR VERDICT

Polycom's newest SIP-compatible "boomerang" speakerphone may be the best conference room phone on the market, analogue or digital.