It's tempting to joke about the name of this product. The Fritz brand comes from German company AVM, which has made a range of ISDN, ASDL and VOIP products for the last 20 years, including several sold by Deutsche Telekom. UK readers may remember AVM's Fritz ISDN card which was sold in the UK by BT in the 1990s.

It's also tempting to comment about Fritz's "German" characteristics. It's solid, thorough, helpful and displays a sometimes astonishing attention to detail.

Packaging and installation
AVM packs the Fritz box up well. Our Fritz! Box Fon WLAN 7050 came with four cables, all the splitters and adapters we needed to get one phone connected, a "getting started" leaflet, and a CD which contains the manual and an installation guide.

The CD walked us through the installation process with no problems at all. The back of the box has an impressive array of ports:

  • broadband
  • analogue or ISDN phone input
  • sockets for three phones
  • 2 Ethernet ports
  • USB port for connecting a PC

There's also an 802.11g Wi-Fi access point. A limit of 2 LAN ports seems small to us at first, but usage patterns are changing, and we realise that as long as the WLAN works well, we only really need two LAN ports, for our main office desktop, and networked storage.

The CD guided us through installation, which we completed over a WLAN connection set up by the box, detecting the neighbours' WLANs, and suggesting a choice of channel. The routine ensured security by prompting us to enter a unique 128 bit WEP key printed on the bottom of our Fritz! Box.

Once connected, it is easy to change from WEP to the more secure WPA, using either TKIP or AES encryption. The WLAN and USB connections worked well too - an option to connect by USB is unusual in a product at this level.

With the product running, management is by an exemplary web interface, accessed at the address http://fritz.box. An overview screen gives the basics - DSL status, speed and IP address, which LAN ports are active, the WLAN status, and any VOIP accounts. It is very simple to drill down, and examine and change settings.

Thorough DSL
The DSL implementation impressed us with its thoroughness. It includes a usage meter, which could be very important for those with capped rate broadband services.

It also gave something we have never seen on a DSL product: a graphical display of the signal-to-noise ratio on the line, and the attainable data rate, which tells us that our service provider is delivering a 2 Mbit/s on a line capable of 8 Mbit/s.

Nifty phone integration
Telephony set-up was even more impressive. Up to ten VOIP providers can be added; the details are entered, and the box will then use any of them for a given extension, according to previously defined rules.

We added VOIP services from Voipbuster and Sipgate. Instantly, we now have two extra phone lines, with dial-tone and good voice quality, whether the PC is on or off.

But this just scratches the surface of the possibilities of the box. These are extensions to a PBX, and there are plenty of features to make them work even better. Rules can be set so any phone will dial using one of the VOIP accounts, or to choose according to whether the number is within a certain range, picking the "best match" - the longest entry in the dialling rules. For instance, the rule "00: voipbuster" will make it dial international calls on Voipbuster; the rule "0049: sipgate" will use Sipgate for calls to Germany. If one service isn't available, it will fall back to another.

It is possible to adjust the ID the phones display to other users, to alter their behaviour as extensions. There is call diversion, and the ability to set timed alarm calls. It's possible to tweak the QoS of the box to deliver better call quality or use less data - but we found it better to leave it as is.

Another nifty feature is call pass-through. It's possible to dial the Fritz Box from a remote phone, and then make VOIP calls from it, for instance getting cheap international calls from a mobile.

The phone section of the Fritz manager gives a log of all calls made and received.

It's worth mentioning that there is third party software available for the box, which Fritz users tell me is a major plus. One add-on can output the call log to a spreadsheet for analysis. Another add-on gives the box TAPI support, so users can dial Outlook contacts, or numbers on Web pages (viewed in Firefox) by clicking them.

Those with ISDN have even more options. The device can connect up to an ISDN line, but can also have ISDN terminal equipment (phones and the like) attached to it, whether or not an ISDN line is present. This wouldl allow, for instance, small offices that have ISDN equipment to plug this in, and cancel the ISDN line. If the office has an ISDN PBX, this can plug in, giving even more extensions.


Good WLAN set-up
The wireless LAN includes the options for "g++", a speed boost option similar to that offered by D-Link in its 2XR products. This is available if using AVM's USB Wi-Fi adapter.

For added security, the fairly standard options of hiding the SSID and limiting access to known MAC addresses are included. It also gives the option to reduce the WLAN transmit power to avoid causing trouble to the neighbours.

Nice system control
The system settings surprised us with the number of "extras". There's a full event log, which can be printed, or e-mailed dily, weekly or motnyly - once you give it your ISP's SMTP server and your email address.

Another good idea is a night service, that can turn the WLAN off between specified times to save power. It won't turn off till the last device disconnects, and can be re-activated by dialling a simple code in one of the phones. It can also put the phones on "do not disturb".

Some of these settings are deemed to be complicated. They can be hidden or revealed with an "expert settings" check box.

To our surprise, when anything looked odd, the online help answered our questions. The PDF manual on the CD was also surprisingly good: well-translated, informative, and indexed.

The rest of the range
For users with no ISDN equipment, there is a Fritz! Box Fon WLAN device that is £20 cheaper. It can still be connected to ISDN or POTS lines, but won't support ISDN phones or PBXs. It has only one LAN port.

Another box is available in Germany, which is expected to come to the UK, at a higher price, in a few months' time. This has four LAN ports and a USB host for printers or storage devices. It also allows the Fritz USB stick to act as a security key: plug it into the box, and then into the client system, and it will set-up a secure WLAN connection.

In a world where products tend to have names like DG834N, it's nice to meet one named Fritz. If AVM increases its profile in the UK, Fritz should do very well indeed.

OUR VERDICT

Fritz! is the best-value single-box communication system for a small office that we have seen. An excellently designed and managed device, it supports up to ten VOIP accounts and provides a three-line PBX which uses them independently of any PCs. Small offices with ISDN equipment could have even more extensions and do away with the ISDN line.