VoIP reviews: IP phone systems help small businesses sound big

Appliances from Allworx, Critical Links, Fonality, Microsoft, and Sutus all combine sophisticated features and low cost; they differ in breadth and complexity, with Fonality’s Asterisk-based PBXtra rising to the top

If you’re currently trapped behind a stubborn, 20th-century phone system, you’d be surprised at what a modern, IP-based phone system can do -- and how affordable they can be. For an office with a handful of users, an IP PBX appliance and five phones could cost you less than $3,000, and you could typically set everything up yourself in less than an hour.

These are just a few of the top-level findings of the Test Center’s comparative evaluation of five IP PBX appliances for small offices and SMBs, products that support anywhere from a few up to a few hundred users. The Allworx, Critical Links, and Fonality solutions are the most expandable. Microsoft Response Point and Sutus Business Central shine for small offices. The top scorer was Fonality’s PBXtra, thanks to a sterling combination of rich telephony features, ease of administration and use, and low cost.

Three of the solutions -- Allworx, Critical Links, and Sutus -- provide more than just a phone system, bundling networking and collaboration goodies such as firewall/VPN, router, Wi-Fi, Web server, and file server. Allworx and Critical Links include WAN capabilities, allowing users to make phone calls between sites without incurring phone service charges.

In all the solutions, the telephony features are remarkably sophisticated. In every case, users can have voice mail messages (in audio file format) forwarded to their e-mail in-boxes, create rules for routing incoming calls to voice mail or a cell phone at different times of day, and host three-party conferences from their phone. In some cases, integration with Outlook can support caller ID functions and click-to-dial. Other solutions make good use of presencing and drag-and-drop call management, or let you place and receive calls through your office line when you’re away. In Microsoft Response Point, you can make internal or external calls by pushing a button and speaking a person’s name.

Below are the test scores (on a 10-point scale) for each product and a brief recap of each review. For full details, see the entire package by the Test Center’s Mike Heck, “Lab test: VoIP phone systems walk the talk.“

Allworx 24x v.6.8
: 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
Good  7.9
Bottom Line: This all-in-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
: 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
: 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.