Originally published September 24, 2009 at Small Net Builder
A little over a year ago, I was offered the daunting task of reviewing the Polycom Soundpoint IP550 & IP650 desk phones. It was a considerable challenge being tasked with the review of these top-of-the-line products from a company that is considered by many to be a market-leader in enterprise VoIP.
Well, that review was easy compared to my current task of evaluating one of their newest offerings; the VVX-1500 Business Media Phones. I almost wish that I hadn’t agreed to undertake the project, because these devices have a wealth of features. But here I am, having had the phones for a couple of months. So I thought I’d best make good on my promise to describe these beasties in some detail.
The VoIP landscape is littered with consumer videophones that failed to deliver or even have a significant impact on the market. A few companies like D-Link, Motorola (Ojo) and Vialta have offered hard phones while others have tried a soft phone (software-based) approach. Neither approach has been able to generate positive consumer buy-in.
Even Skype, the dominant player in the space, reports that only about a third of its call volume includes video. So it’s safe to say, that consumers just don’t see much value in video calling. But, the same cannot be said for businesses that are looking for ways to economize on business travel, both to help the bottom line and reduce carbon footprint.
With this in mind, VoIP manufacturers are bringing forth a new wave of video capable devices targeting business applications. It’s this business-centric focus that might make the difference in whether people find value in its capabilities. The Polycom VVX-1500 is part of this new lineup. Some would refer to the VVX-1500 as a “videophone” but that’s a little too simplistic. Polycom calls the VVX-1500 a “Business Media Phone” but that’s very vague.
The Polycom VVX-1500 is a SIP phone with numerous multimedia features. At its core, it’s an IP phone not unlike the SoundPoint IP650 that I reviewed last year. In fact, they run the very same firmware. But the VVX’s feature set is truly a superset of the IP650’s.
The VVX’s design is similar to its lesser siblings in the Polycom SoundPoint lineup, but with some significant differences. The most obvious is the addition of a 7-inch wide-screen color TFT touchscreen LCD display. The display is mounted in a fashion that gives the phone a kind of large clamshell appearance. The display is hinged and folds down over the speaker & dial pad for shipping and storage (Figure 1).
Figure 1: VVX Features
A small video camera is mounted in the top of the LCD display. The camera can be adjusted vertically without the need to disturb or adjust the position of the LCD display. The TFT LCD display in the VVX-1500 is looks good. It’s vibrant and sharp, with good brightness and contrast. Of course, the LCD display is a key component in making video calls, but the phone leverages it in other ways as well.
For example, the VVX-1500 features a “Picture Frame” mode that turns the display into a digital photo frame while the phone is idle. It also provides an enhanced display for the built-in XML micro-browser.
The VVX-1500 has all the normal external connections (Figure 2). The handset and headset connections are via RJ-9 connectors. The phone has dual Gigabit Ethernet connections so that it acts as a 2-port switch. Thus one network drop can service both the VVX-1500 and a PC at the users location. A coax connector supports directly powering the phone with 48 VDC, although I expect most people would power the device using power-over-Ethernet.
Figure 2: VVX Connector panel
Unlike the SoundPoint phones, the stand on the VVX-1500 is height adjustable, which is similar to Cisco 79xx series phones. Set at its lowest, the phone takes the most desk space but has a reasonably low profile. With the stand set higher, the phone stands quite tall on the desk. This provides a way to position the camera height so that it’s not necessarily looking up at you. The stand folds flat against the back of the phone for shipping. I also expect that the phone could be wall mounted if a suitable bracket were offered.
Some users may feel that the phone is a little bit large for their desktops. This is exacerbated by locating the USB port behind a small door on the right side of the phone. If you use the USB port a lot you’ll likely have the memory key effectively increasing the phones footprint on your desk. It would have been nice if the USB port could have been located on the back of the device, but tucked out of the way of the stand.
The resistive touchscreen is fairly responsive, but I found that my fingers were a little too large to type quickly using the touchscreen keyboard layout. I suspect that some people might prefer to use a stylus rather than their fingertip for such entry tasks. Polycom indicates that this is possible in their documentation, but a stylus is not provided.
The buttons on the VVX-1500 are a larger than the buttons on the SoundPoint series phones, and have a metallic feel to them. The major function keys on the phone are internally backlit by blue LEDs when the related function is active.
Polycom paid particular attention to power consumption in the VVX-1500;s design, since it draws a very modest 11 W. It also supports 802.3af standard power-over-Ethernet, declaring itself a class 0 device to the upstream switch. When not on a call, the phone uses the camera to sense movement, and turns off the backlight on the LCD display if it senses that no one is nearby. In this off-hours or standby mode, power consumption drops to just 6 W.
Previous Polycom phones have been notoriously tedious to setup. But the touchscreen display makes setting up the VVX much easier. Like other SoundPoint phones, basic network settings are established directly on the phone as it boots. From that point, you can use a web browser to access the phone’s administrative web portal and set up various SIP settings. Then, instead of navigating menus with five direction keys, you simply tap on the desired menu option right on the LCD. The on-phone menus allow access to all the settings necessary to get the device on your network and interacting with a SIP server. I found this a very intuitive way to set up the phone’s most basic network settings.
Figure 3: On screen network configuration
With only two VVX devices under evaluation, I configured the phones using just the on-phone menus in conjunction with the touchscreen. This was fast and easy. But if I were rolling out a number of these devices, I’d provision them using a central server as described in last year’s review of the IP650. The VVX-1500 supports provisioning via TFTP, FTP, HTTP, HTTPS or SFTP. If you already have some Polycom phones in your company, then the VVX will fit right into your existing provisioning arrangement.