Lab test: VoIP phone systems walk the talk

Appliances from Allworx, Critical Links, Fonality, Microsoft, and Sutus have slick telephony features and affordable price tags, but differ significantly in breadth, depth, and complexity

Small and midsize businesses face many obstacles when trying to compete with larger enterprises. One classic handicap of the smaller business is the second-class phone system, the shortcomings of which are both glaringly apparent to callers outside the organization and keenly felt by the employees inside, who know that sounding professional when clients and prospects call is a crucial part of building relationships and sales.

If anything, the movers and multitaskers who run a smaller company need even smarter telephony features than the big guys. But of course, many SMBs don't have the resources to purchase and manage an elaborate PBX phone system.

The five IP PBX appliances reviewed here are reasonably priced and easy to administer and use. Some can be installed without the need for expert help. And their telephony features – typically configured and accessed from a browser or lightweight desktop application – are all remarkably sophisticated.

Like other networking systems, these solutions plug into your LAN and Internet pipe (if you have VoIP service) or to analog PSTN lines. Whether your external phone service is analog or digital, voice is then passed over your existing data network to digital handsets. This alone can save you money, because you avoid additional cabling costs, not to mention rewiring when employees join the firm or move.

[ Read the individual reviews: Allworx 24x, Critical Links EdgeBox Office, Fonality PBXtra, Microsoft Response Point, and Sutus Business Central. Scores and summaries are listed at the end of this introduction. ]

But there are even bigger advantages to these systems. For one, they have the potential to reduce your computing infrastructure outlay to one-third of what you might expect to pay if you purchased components piecemeal and assembled the system yourself. That’s because some of the products tested replace up to six devices, including routers, e-mail and file servers, firewalls, and NAS.

Second, their primary telephone features help your office run more efficiently. All the solutions (though to a lesser or greater degree) let you define what happens to incoming calls, such as routing them to an attendant or to voicemail during specified hours. You can establish interactive voice prompts that direct callers to different departments. Users have the option to redirect calls to alternate numbers, perhaps a cell phone, when they're off-site. Plus, the systems can alert users to voice messages through e-mail.

Pluses and minuses
Often you get (or can purchase as options) advanced features, such as call queuing, which is valuable for support departments. Just be cautious of feature overkill, which might defeat two of the primary reasons to purchase: ease of management and ease of use. For instance, do you really need a phone system that has built-in Web and file servers? Such all-in-one approaches may be a godsend to some offices, while introducing needless complexity to others.

Most of the units support a good range of VoIP handsets – usually from name vendors that include Linksys and Polycom.

Scalability is a significant differentiator, with these systems supporting anywhere from eight users to more than 300. Remember, though, as you add more users you may hit the wall of network bandwidth, as increasing volumes of digital voice – as compressed as it is – begin to contend with printing, file server, and other network traffic. To get around this problem, vendors in this roundup often include QoS and bandwidth management utilities.

My final important discovery – something that vendors don't like to discuss – is that system costs are potentially just part of your outlay. Hidden expenses can be $5,000 to $10,000 for a reseller to install and customize your IP PBX. Even with that extra cost, these solutions all deliver on their promise of providing communications for SMBs on par with far more complex and pricey alternatives.

In deciding which of these solutions might satisfy your needs, start by asking a few questions. Are you a single, small office or a fast-growing SMB with multiple sites? Do you have someone skilled to manage the system? Do you need only a PBX or would Web and file servers be valuable?

And the winners are…
Small offices with five to 25 employees should look closely at Microsoft Response Point and Sutus Business Central and also consider Fonality's PBXtra. If simplicity is more important than features, Response Point is my choice. But if telephony features are the main attraction, then I give the nod to PBXtra. If an all-in-one system is appealing, then you can't go wrong with Sutus.

Larger organizations should seriously consider Allworx, Critical Links' EdgeBox, and PBXtra. Because these solutions all have extensive features, the selection isn't as clear cut. My recommendation, unless you need surplus features such as a router or firewall or Web server, is to go with PBXtra. Moreover, when you consider the cost of software editions and especially phones, PBXtra scales more economically than Allworx and EdgeBox.

Below are the test scores (on a 10-point scale) and brief summaries of the five solutions. For more detail, follow the links to the complete evaluations.

Allworx 24x v.6.8
Score
: Very Good  8.6
Bottom Line: A true all-in-one system, each Allworx appliance combines full PBX and VoIP duties with networking functions including automated backup, e-mail and Web server, security, and LAN management. Rich communications features include unified messaging and presence awareness, along with options such as call queuing, a conference center, and group calendaring. Another important differentiator is site-to-site access, with 100 sites supported. See complete review.

Critical Links EdgeBox Office v.4.5.2
Score:
Good  7.9
Bottom Line: This all-one-one appliance integrates Asterisk telephony, networking, e-mail, file sharing, and Web server into a single enterprise-grade solution. However, the many moving parts and interfaces add complexity to configuration and use. Phone services include interactive voice response and conferences as well as queues and other features for call centers. QoS management lets administrators set VoIP and Web caching policies. See complete review.

Fonality PBXtra 4.0
Score
: Excellent  8.8
Bottom Line: PBXtra is a scalable phone system with a user-friendly interface, making it easy to install, use, and maintain. A "hybrid hosted" architecture lets Fonality remotely manage the system. The basic configuration is value-laden, with strong Outlook integration, conference bridges, and CRM hooks; plus it supports analog and VoIP phones. The Professional edition adds multiple auto-attendants and conferencing, while Call Center tacks on unlimited call queues and agent capabilities. See complete review.

Microsoft Response Point 1.0
Score
: Very Good  8.3
Bottom Line: Response Point combines software from Microsoft and hardware from IP telephony vendors. Reliable voice recognition -- without any training -- is unique among the products tested, and helps make the system remarkably easy to use. Setup and admin are a snap, and it's easy to add new users and phones -- up to 50 without additional licensing fees. Telephony features are basic. If basic meets your needs, this system is a perfect fit for the small, Windows-centric office. See complete review.

Sutus Business Central SB-200
Score
: Very Good  8.4
Bottom Line: Sutus' unified communication solution combines telephony, e-mail and file servers, and even wired and wireless networking in a single box. This reduces hardware costs for offices of up to 25 users, while easing administration. The system integrates VoIP and PSTN lines, via an included gateway, while phone services convert voice mail to e-mail. Sutus lacks the advanced telephony features and expandability of some competitors, but its wizard-driven setup, reliability features, and collaboration spaces should be a hit with smaller offices. See complete review.

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