Swedish company Intertex was a pioneer in SIP gateways. It foresaw the possibilities of VoIP over broadband as early as 1998, when it launched an ADSL gateway with built in SIP. Intertex' concern was to get SIP packets through a firewall securely, and nine years later, the IX68 SurfinBird still shows its firewall origins, but has evolved into what may be the most powerful small SIP solution on the market.

The IX68 can be used in a similar way to products like the Fritz Box, registering with public SIP services and providing SIP clients on two standard telephone ports, to add Internet phone lines to a home or small office.

But this box can do a lot more. It includes its own SIP server - this can make the box into its own little SIP phone provider for the company. Employees can phone each other for free even from remote sites across the Internet, and cheap connectivity to the Internet is available by registering the SIP server to an Internet telephony service providers (ITSP).

That's when things get interesting. Company employees with SIP phones could make international phone calls wherever they are on the road, routing through the Internet and this box's SIP server. To get the full benefits, there's a SIP switch software upgrade that includes all the PBX functions you would want: a dial-plan wizard to set up least-cost routing, routing incoming calls to extension numbers visible to the outside world.

An office of up to fifty people could use one of these, Intertex says. As well as the two conventional phone sockets, it can support multiple IP phones attached through switches on the Ethernet ports. It can also support mobile devices with SIP clients, such as Wi-Fi phones or dual-mode devices such as the Nokia E61. Intertex believes the hardware can support up to 30 simultaneous SIP calls.

If you're not using all this, the unit's £200 + VAT price is overkill for three people in a SOHO office, but cheap for the full server functionality. The downloadable SIP switch costs €500 - that would be the cheapes part of a full IP phone installation, as users would need to have desktop IP phones too.

ADSL lines are not likely to support 30 calls, even with the new ADSL 2+ which the IX68 supports, because of ADSL's low upstream rates. ADSL supports about 16 calls per Mbit/s of upstream data-rate, Intertex estimates, so heavy users are going to hook their LAN up to a bigger pipe, and use the IX68 as an Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA). ignore the ADSL provision in the SurfinBird, or use it as a backup.

Much of this was beyond the scope of our review, but we checked out basic functions and came away very impressed.

Set-up and unpacking

The initial impression is small and cute. It's about six inches square, pale blue, and well provided with LEDs and buttons. There are LEDs for Wi-Fi (labelled "AIR"), the two phones, the phone line, the four Ethernet ports and the WAN - and a 3-digit LED screen that displays the security level of the firewall.

Swedish care was evident in the packaging - a neat multi-compartment cardboard box. Open one end and you find the unit cocooned in bubble wrap, with cables and quick-start instruction card in a separate slot. Open the other end, and there is the power supply and the phone and cable adapters - including a nice Y-connector to put both phone and data into one socket on the back of the IX68.

The quick-start card is brief and to the point - but can't do justice to the complexity of the user interface. Hence there's an "addendum" to the card, which at 20 pages, covers all the basics and might as well be called a short manual. The context-sensitive help from the management screens is good.

There's no CD in the box, so the manual is only available online and can be reached from a link on the first management screen (but only if you've already succeeded in setting up your WAN).

Plugging power and cables was straightforward. We found the box ran very hot when flat - it packs a lot into a small space - and the card suggests standing it vertically.

We connected easily by Wi-Fi. It ships with Wi-Fi on by default (the SSID is SIPGT) and security off. Once connected, it's possible to turn security on, with the usual options - of WEP, WPA-PSK and WPA2-PSK. You can also limit the WLAN to specific MAC addresses, and choose not to broadcast the SSID - a feature (mis)described as a "closed" system in the management pages, but correctly explained in the help page.

The management screen at 192.168.0.1 leads via a log-in screen to a page of options. "Network" brings up a picture of the back of the box, with data fields to be completed by each of the ports. It's a good visual idea, but is initially forbidding as it doesn't give any idea of the set-up sequence.

The first step is to nominate the Line (or Ethernet 4) port as the WAN interface. We then had to set the Line port to "outside" and Access type to "Auto". Only then did boxes appear where we could enter our ADSL username and password. Then it still remained to click "Search" to validate the connection, and "Apply" to use it. A bit of a palaver compared with other boxes.

As well as ADSL, we tried using the Ethernet uplink, to connect to the router provided by our main access provider, Urban Wimax. It was fiddly to get the IX68 to use port 4 as an uplink, but it worked. Urban Wimax provides my house with up to 4Mbit/s over a point-to-point wireless link to a rooftop in Westminster. With that sort of bandwidth, I could use the IX68's SIP server to run a largish call-centre, but I don't have that kind of megalomania.

SIP usage

Sticking to the simple parts of SIP, we registered the two phone ports to SIP providers (we use Voipbuster, Sipgate and Voiptalk, and all three worked) and tried some Internet telephony.

In this consumer-grade usage level, far below the situations it is designed for, the IX68 turned out to be harder to use than systems like the Fritz Box, or even the Speedtouch. The basic system without the upgrade appears to only allow one SIP name and provider per port. We couldn't find a way to dial onto the PSTN without pressing ** first, and the box waits an annoying four seconds to dial a call unless you press the hash key (eventually this is no more irritating than pressing the green button to dial a mobile).

There are quite a few tunable features such as adjusting the volume on the speaker and microphone in the handset, and usual functions like call transfer between extensions.

Security

We found it surprising to see the security level on a display which reads "Hi", "Lo, "AC" (user configured) or "blo" (blocked). That's a result of the box's evolution from a firewall, as is the very full screen of changeable features that you get if you move to AC.

Even more surprisingly, we found that the security level can be altered between those three settings by pressing a button on the front of the box - is that sensible in an office where someone might adjust it by mistake?

There is no danger of the firewall being turned off by mistake. The "AC" configuration can only be set from the administrator screen, the "Lo" setting is as good as most built-in firewalls, and the "Hi" setting blocks everything except mail and web. However, that button could shut down the whole company's IM conversations, by going to Hi, or all Internet activity by going to "blo".

Conclusions

This is a powerful beast, and given time, we'd consider it for small-to-medium businesses wanting to move to VoIP. The user interface takes some getting used to, but is tractable, and there are possibilities to make really useful features in a bespoke telephony system. .

Tiny SOHO operations that don't plan to grow into big SIP installations would be better considering a box like the Fritz or the Speedtouch. With its eyes focussed onbigger prizes, the IX68 misses details like including a USB port for printers and storage.

OUR VERDICT

Small businesses could build a powerful bespoke phone system with this surprisingly low-cost and flexible box, and larger businesses could use several on different sites. Tiny SOHO operations would be better off getting a more limited box that packages the user interface better