The following review was conducted in November 2009.
If you know anything about IP telephones, then you also probably know about the Polycom Soundpoint IP 550/650 models. Polycom has long since established itself as a leader in the industry and high-end devices like the 550 show why it deserves the attention. In short, this is a good phone. In fact, it’s a very good phone. The question is whether or not this phone is right for you, and if it’s worth spending that little bit extra for the added benefits.
The Polycom Soundpoint IP 550 is a 4-line SIP phone that supports wideband audio, more commonly known as 'HD voice' (G.722 codec). It has all the call handling features you might expect from a business phone, including some others like bridged line appearance, distinctive incoming call treatment, and remote missed call notification. Chances are that it has so many capabilities that you’ll discover new ones months into using the phone. Some other features include a giant 320x160 backlit LCD screen, 4 context sensitive “soft” keys, 24 dedicated “hard” keys, a full duplex speakerphone, and an XHTML browser for customized applications.
A lot of VoIP service providers package their services with Polycom phones and the Polycom 550 is usually one of the most highly recommended models. This is probably more than just a coincidence. In the business VoIP world, the service only goes so far as the end devices; if the devices are “top of the line”, then the service will shine as well.
If you search “polycom 550 review”, you’ll find mostly positive comments with few exceptions. SmithonVoIP’s main gripe with the phone was with the price, but nowadays you can get your hands on a 550 for much less than the ~$300 price tag he cited. He also stated that HD Voice of the Polycom 550 is not yet widely supported by most VoIP service providers. While I don’t have the numbers in front of me, I will say that the adoption of HD voice as the business standard is already well underway. If you’re looking to invest in a suite of business phones, it makes sense to get technology that will be able to take advantage of emerging services. There are also many other ways to take advantage of HD voice like, for example, a conference call between employees located in different offices.
To be honest, I can’t really make a real “first impression” of this phone because it’s the desk phone I’ve been using for months, but I’ll give it a shot. The phone looks and feels very good. Like other Polycom business phone models, the color scheme is an all-business silver on black. The buttons are nicely styled and depress well when pushed. The speakerphone, headset and mute button light up colorfully when pressed. The phone also has LEDs to correspond to each of the four line appearances, and another LED which acts as a message indicator.
The 320x160 backlit LCD is one of the nicest grayscale displays I’ve used. The resolution is excellent, and the 'artistic' details like the shading around the context sensitive button options let you know that this was not something that was just slapped together.
The overall design successfully incorporates both sharp edges and rounded corners, and gives the phone a very sleek look. The Polycom 550 is probably one of the most visually appealing desk phone we’ve reviewed so far.
Polycom’s Soundpoint IP web UI makes configuring the phone a simple process. You can find instructions on how to provision the Polycom 550 to work with OnSIP’s service here. One minor annoyance with configuring the 550 is that the phone will go through a 1-minute reboot process every time you press the “submit” button in the web UI. You also cannot make any other changes to your phone settings during this time because you are locked out during the reboot process. We would suggest inputting all the configuration settings on a page at once so you can be done with each screen in one fell swoop.
Junction Networks Interoperability Test
At Junction Networks, we put each of the phones we use through a multi-step interoperability test in which we put the phones through 30 test cases. An example of a test case would be the following:
“Test phone calls phone B
B picks up
B puts Test phone on hold
B calls phone C
C picks up
B transfers test phone to C
Call must be transferred correctly to C. B must be released correctly after the transfer. When C picks up, audio must work in both ways between test phone and C. When test phone is on hold, there is no audio between it and phone B.”
We are very happy to say that the Polycom 550 passed each test.
With HD Voice, the voice quality of the Polycom 550 is superb. It is something that you have to try out yourself to truly appreciate. Here are two sound clips taken from mgraves.org, which should give you an idea of the sizable difference between wideband audio and standard audio. The first clip is what you might expect from a regular SIP call and the second is what you get with HD Voice using a Polycom 550/650. I actually think the sound quality I get with my 550 is even better than what you hear in the second clip. In fact, in conference calls with off site coworkers, it sounds as if they are sitting right across from me.
Polycom is known for making high quality speakerphones, and they certainly did not skimp on this feature in the IP 550. With HD Voice and excellent echo cancellation, conversations are astonishingly clear and crisp. While a lot of IP phones on the market have barely usable speakerphones, the Soundpoint IP 550 has one of the few that I would use regularly with confidence.
Unfortunately, to get the full benefits of wideband audio, calls have to be handled by IP from end to end. Calls that go through the PSTN will still have their voice quality enhanced but the improvement will not be as noticeable. Furthermore, both ends of the call have to be using an HD voice compatible phone.
Ease of Use
The Polycom 550 is an extremely user-friendly phone that offers a lot of room for users to customize their experience. For example, you can set your phones to display any image of your choosing; in our case, the OnSIP logo. The phone also comes with an XHTML browser feature that allows you to use the LCD screen to interact with simple XHTML applications. We’re not too big on using XHTML applications here at OnSIP, but we can imagine that there is plenty of room for different users to design applications specifically catered to their needs. Some examples of the “stock” XHTML applications include a stock ticker, a browser that can look up flight details, etc.
The phone itself has convenient dedicated hard keys for most of the things you’ll use on a daily basis like, “hold”, “conference”, “transfer”, “redial”, “messages” and “dnd”. For some of the more advanced stuff, you can navigate to them painlessly using the LCD screen and navigation pad. The phone also has dedicated hard keys for speakerphone and headset where you can set different preferred volumes. This is a great addition for someone who switches between the handset, speakerphone and headset during those busy hours.
The Polycom 550 is one of the best phones sitting in our labs. It delivers the best in handset and speakerphone voice quality, a customizable XTHML interface, a glossy 320x160 backlit LCD screen, and more features than we can cover. One of the main concerns about the Polycom 550 is about its price. When it was first released a couple of years ago, it went for over $300 dollars. Nowadays, you can get your hands on a 550 for just a little more than comparable models from other manufacturers. Is it worth it? In our minds, the answer is a definite yes. Although we prefer to think of ourselves as neutral and invite you to bring whatever hardware you want to our service, in the back of our minds, we’re kind of secretly hoping you’re bringing a fleet of 550s. Don’t tell anyone.