A Tale Of Woe….And Cordless Phones: Part 1

I was trying to not write this, but week upon week the trouble persists, and my search for a cordless phone continues ad nausea. This entire story I’ve now told to several people who hazarded to ask, “what’s wrong?” So now I write just to stop my hands from shaking, that I may eventually rest.

I need a cordless phone. Full stop, let’s consider that fact for a moment. Working in my home office, when home at all, I frequently attend long conference calls, or provide deep tech support and diagnostics via phone. I can spend a lot of my day on the phone. This is part of what drives my earlier assertion that “Life’s too short to use a cheap phone.” Call me a phone snob if you must. I don’t care.

Here’s the next fact of the case. I’m an early adopter. I buy stuff early in it’s life cycle just because it looks like it might be cool. Sometimes it is cool. Sometimes it isn’t, but with guidance it gets there. Other times it just doesn’t live up to its promise, and we move one having learned some lessons. Early adopters spend more than most to be early in the game…those of you in manufacturing take note.

Returning to my original statement. I need a cordless phone. Cross that fact with the fact that I have Asterisk in-house, as well as hosted PBX via my employer. So I can be more precise….I need a SIP cordless phone.

A Collection Of Wifi SIP Phones
A Collection Of Wifi SIP Phones

VOIP Supply lists no fewer than 12 SIP WIFI phones. You’d think that one would meet my needs. And you’d be wrong. Further, I’m betting if they don’t work for me they won’t satisfy the bulk of you either. So why are so many manufacturers bothering with Wifi SIP offerings? And where are they going wrong?

Hitachi Cable WIP-5000
Hitachi Cable WIP-5000

Let me say that I’ve definitely put my money into this quest. I bought a Hitachi Cable WIP-5000 directly from the importer when they were just being rolled out in the US. I paid over $350 for that device, more than any other phone I’d ever bought at the time. Even more than any cell phone I’d owned. It looked promising so I made the investment in both cash and time.

After four months using the WIP-5000 I put it back in the box and used the magic of E-bay to deliver it to a new home. Why? There are a lotta reasons;

1. Volume too low

Both in the handset and when using an earpiece. And I work in a relatively quiet home office. How anyone could use that phone in a busy office I’ll never know.

2. Battery life too short

A simple problem. I got about 2-3 hours talk time or 36 hours standby time.

3. Coverage too unreliable

Using common wifi APs, that is the <$100 devices as opposed to Cisco AiroNet, wifi coverage was not consistent enough to sustain a call more than about 10 yards away from the AP. I use two APs to provide coverage across our property. The WIP-5000 could not hand off from one to the other while sustaining a call.

These are the technical reasons why the WIP-5000 didn’t meet my requirements, but there are underlying design considerations that go unspoken as other manufacturers have rolled out more and more wifi handsets.

Now Hear This!

A cell phone is not the ideal form factor for a cordless phone!

Wireless <> Cordless!

If you look at essentially all the wifi sip handsets being offered they all presume that a cell phone is the ideal form factor. Some even go so far as to mimic the clamshell designs. For dedicated wifi sip handsets this is simply wrong. Wrong in so many ways.

* Buttons too small
* LCDs too small
* Limited access to PBX features/functions
* strange power connectors
* No integration with contact lists from server
* No belt clip
* etc, etc.

To illustrate my point lets consider one of the most successful companies in the corldess phone space, and a product that I once used (and loved)…Panasonic’s KXTG-4000 KSU system.

Panasonic KX-TG4000B KSU with built-in battery backup

This was a great system for SOHO users. It had 4 FXOs, supported 8 cordless handsets, which were available both in handset and deskset form factors. So smart! Why did I love thee so?

* The handsets are large-ish, with buttons big enough to find while fumbling one-handed.
* Common pbx functions like hold transfer & redial each have dedicated buttons.
* Long range, as much as 100 yards
* Battery life is long, and the battery is end-user replaceable.
* There’s a belt clip, big enough not to let go if I bend over
* Durable, handles being dropped fairly well
* A standard wired headset jack
* Caller log & stored number directory are easy to use with a minimum of button presses
* Stored number directory can be sync’d from the base to the handset and vice versa

Now it wasn’t perfect. As a 2.4 GHz device it didn’t interact well with wifi networks. This model was replaced with a 5.8 GHz model that was a better fit into wifi enabled facilities.

Has anyone even noticed that Panasonic has a long and successful history in the cordless phone business? Does anyone even acknowledge that as a business, one that’s very different from the cell phone business?

Aastra 480i CT With Cordless Handset
Aastra 480i CT With Cordless Handset

The nearest thing to this in a SIP phone is the Aastra 480i CT, or the newer 57i CT. I bought a 480i CT which I really do like a lot, but its portable handsets are very small, with no dedicated keys at all. It’s a great SIP phone, but the cordless units are much less than ideal.

It’s worth noting that the Aastra phones are not wifi devices, they’re DECT based. DECT is a European standard in the 1.9 GHz band that was only recently adopted in the US. As such, these devices are wifi friendly. They also have reasonable range, easily comparable to my old Panasonic KSU.

Engenius 900 MHz Cordless Phone
Engenius 900 MHz Cordless Phone

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I once purchased an Engenius long range cordless phone. At the time these were the very best option for commercial installation. Notice how the handset looks like a mid-1990s vintage Nokia cell phone? As far as I can tell this was when the cordless phone world turned the corner, in the wrong direction, and started trying to mimic cell phones.

This device worked as promised. And when used with an ATA it handled basic calling adequately. However, an ATA and a traditional cordless cordless phone puts the burden of accessing pbx features into the dialplan. You have to code all the different functions that would be natively appearing on a genuine SIP device. So that’s a double whammy, no dedicated button, and non-standard dialing to access PBX functions. Deduct several million points for usability.

In the end I stopped using this device because of short battery life and poor audio quality. It had a NiMH battery that suffered memory effect, and no upgrade path to a Lithium Ion power source.

This product is now defunct, but their current offering is a SIP wifi handset…with tiny little buttons and little or no access to pbx functions.

Sadly, this new device is essentially the same as the handset being offered by 3 Network in the UK, and known as the “Skype Phone.” It seems that there are only a few designs floating around Asia being branded by various companies in The West.

In part 2: Surveying the DECT SIP landscape, Polycom/SpectraLink, Aastra SIP-DECT & the new SNOM M3

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