Linksys SPA962 Product Review

At-a-Glance

Product Name: Linksys SPA962
Spec Sheet: Linksys SPA962 Data Sheet
Estimated Price: $320.00 (USD)
Pros: Bright and bold color display; six independently configurable lines; easy to install; superb remote provisioning functionality.
Cons: Speaker phone needs work; web-based configuration pages look dated and could be more informative.

Linksys SPA962

Linksys SPA962

 

 

Introduction

When Linksys, the little kid division of Cisco Systems based in relentlessly sunny Orange County, CA, purchased trendsetting VoIP equipment manufacturer Sipura Technology last year, it marked a couple of turning points for the vendor of all things OEM.

First, the Sipura purchase allowed Linksys to boast, for the first time, that they themselves would be an equipment manufacturer, and not just a value-added reseller of low-cost network gadgets cloned and built by the tens of thousands in places a short train ride from Hong Kong.

The purchase was bold and, in some measure, probably calculated to differentiate Linksys from its Best Buy store-shelf rivals DLink and Netgear.

On that level it worked, and well. In the rapidly growing VoIP equipment space, Linksys is soaring, while DLink, Netgear, Belkin and dozens of other cheap networking gear hawkers are so far behind that any talk of catch-up is, for now, mere pipe dream.

The second turning point is equally intriguing: In a very short time, the Sipura purchase has allowed Linksys to surpass even its own parent company, Cisco, the demi-God of network managers at firms up and down the Fortune lists, in the VoIP space. It’s quickly becoming less of a secret among the ranks of IT professionals in the know that it makes little sense to continue buying Cisco when Linksys VoIP end-point products more closely adhere to modern standards, offer superior inter-operability, and cost a fraction of the price.

When Linksys releases its new high-end SIP-based IP-telephone, the SPA962, in the next few weeks, any pretense Cisco has as the king of the VoIP desktop will vanish. As far as features, functionality and quality go, the SPA962 is equal to or better than the 7970G, Cisco’s own high-end IP telephone. As for value? At about a third of the price, the SPA942 is light years ahead.

Linksys has not yet set a firm price on the SPA962, but company officials say it will come in at around $320, slightly higher than the 6-line Polycom IP601. And Linksys is positioning the product to battle directly with Polycom’s high-end offering.

The SPA942 was designed by the talented “Sipura” engineering team at Linksys, the same group behind the popular SPA2000, PAP2 and SPA300 VoIP telephone adaptors and the SPA941 and SPA942 IP telephones. The newest offering is a sturdily built IP handset sporting a four-inch full-color LCD screen with 320×240 resolution, a built-in two-port ethernet switch, Power over Ethernet technology, and six independently configurable lines.

Linksys provided us with a pre-release sample of the SPA962, explaining that some finishing touches were still to come. And, indeed, we found a few small details that need to be ironed out — incorrect alignment of the phone’s line buttons with the display and a browser-based configuration interface with some appearance-hampering HTML glitches being the most obvious.

On the whole, however, we found the device to be quite stable and usable, and very close to full production release standards.

Build and Design

The very concept of an IP telephone seems like something of a transitional measure, a necessary step towards weaning us from the trusted handset until us slow-to-change humans come to grips with the fact that the computer itself is a better “brain” for voice.

This became quite clear when we set up the SPA962 next to a computer screen. Save for the hand piece and keypad, the device, with its color LCD and tabbed menu, looks almost like a small computer, or a beefy desktop version of a mobile smart phone. The first impulse is to try to control the device by pushing the tabs on the screen. Sadly, the screen is not a touch-pad, and we’re left with the familiar, if limiting, traditional line buttons and dial pad as controls.

The experience is as though the designers of the SPA962 are preparing us for a not-too-distant future where we control a phone from a desktop computer running specialized software, and use a business class handset (or even headset) as the voice instrument. Such devices exist today (there’s a myriad of USB phones on the market), but these are inferior in build, with woefully lacking software packages, and certainly not ready for the office.

Until we’re ready (or until someone develops a more robust software/handset hybrid solution), we’re left using yesterday’s hardware (the all-in-one telephone) with today’s technology.

For yesterday’s hardware, the SPA962 is definitely a huge step forward. It’s sleek, sophisticated and, most definitely, a worthy contender for the top-of-the-line in office desk sets.

Though it’s similar in looks to the SPA941 and SPA942, there are some important differences. For one, the SPA962 is significantly heavier and is about two inches taller — allowing it to accommodate the taller full-color LCD and two more lines — than the reigning Linksys office champs.

The plastic shell on the SPA962 is a jet black, significantly darker than the dark gray body of the SP94X series. Like with the SPA94X, the SPA962 sports a plastic silver bezel around the LCD, through which six line buttons protrude along the right edge, and a long horizontal red LCD used as a message-waiting indicator.

Along the bottom of the LCD, four buttons control context-sensitive tabs presented on the screen. A four-directional scroll button sits just above the numeric keypad. The seven buttons to the right of the keypad are exactly the same as on the SPA94X series and serve these functions: voice mail retrieval, setup, mute, headset, speaker phone, hold, and volume control.

On our review model, the device came with five external inputs: 2.5mm headset jack, power, handset cord, and two RJ45s for ethernet in and out. According to Linksys, the final production model of the phone will include and AUX port, though the company is being tight-lipped about its use (though a good guess — given how the SPA962 is being positioned to rival Polycom’s IP601 — would be that Linksys is planning a plug in “sidecar,” giving the phone the expandability to handle many more lines).

The phone is packaged with a plastic base that allows it to stand at a comfortable angle on the desktop. It also includes notches on the rear for hanging, though the lack of inlaid grooves through which to guide the cables makes it a less than satisfactory wall phone.

The eye-catcher, of course, is the LCD panel. There is a setting on the phone’s web interface to upload different background images, though on our review model this functionality was not working (Linksys promises image upload functionality will be ready on the production release). Each of the phones six lines appear along the fight edge of the screen, with icons representing on/off-hook, and awaiting voice mail.

Up to four context-sensitive soft tabs line are visible the bottom of the screen, which can be scrolled horizontally with the wheel rocker to reveal more tabs. In its default state with the phone not in use, these tabs give one-button access to redial, phone directory, call forwarding and do not disturb.

The build quality of the SPA942 is among its best features. It’s a phone that feels like it can withstand heavy-duty use, and looks like asophsticated office device designed to impress.

Installation and Ease of Use

Compared to the IP601 and 7970G, installing the SPA962 is a breeze. On our test bed, we tried the device out with two different office PBX: Communigate System’s Communigate Pro and the popular open-source Linux-based Asterisk.

Communigate Pro (CGP), known mostly as an email server and highly capable Microsoft Exchange replacement, has added full telephony capability to its feature set, including a PBX, switch, session-border controller and voice mail server. Because a telephone account in CGP is based on the email accounts stored in the system, we had to make no changes to the CGP server to accomodate the SPA962.

Asterisk, of course, is significantly more complicated to add new devices to, and we had to edit a number of internal “conf” text files in order to give the SPA962 a target to register with.

Once the server was set up, the rest was simple. We connected the phone to the network via an ethernet cable, pushed the Setup button and scrolled down to the network screen to see the IP address assigned the phone by DHCP. We entered the IP address in the browser, and the familiar Linksys Configuration Screen came up instantly. We clicked on the links to open up the administrative and advanced settings, and then clicked on the “Ext. 1″ tab (to set up the CGP connection). We entered the CGP server in the proxy field, the user name and passwords in the appropriate fields, and the checkbox to permit NAT traversal. We repeated these steps in the Ext. 2 tab for our Asterisk server.

After clicking on the “Submit all Settings” button on the bottom of the web page, the phone automatically rebooted and was ready to make and receive calls on two separate servers. The complete amount of time it took from opening the carton to making calls was less than 5 minutes. (As an aside, rebooting the Linksys line of telephones takes no more than 3-4 seconds. Doing the same with Polycom phones takes nearly two minutes.)

Using the SPA962 will be very familiar to anyone who has used either of the phones in the Linksys SPA94X series. To a newcomer, learning the functions of the buttons to the right of the keypad will take little time (though a couple of those buttons use icons that are a bit obtuse).

A phone’s usability is, of course, a matter of personal preference. The Linksys SPA962 is not difficult to use, but does require a level of memorization, especially to get at keys not visible by default on the LCD. In this regard, the IP601 is definitely a bit easier in that, with its significantly wider form factor, it offers many more hardware buttons requiring less pecking and scrolling through soft menus.

Features

Save for the additional lines and color display, the feature set of the SPA962 is about the same as on the SPA942. This includes a speakerphone, connectivity with music on hold servers, selective distinctive ringtones, call conferencing, and typical call handling features such as transfer and forward.

As with the SPA94X series, lines can be set as private or shared, the latter emulating the ability of multi-line analog business phone sets allowing calls to appear on multiple phones. Call sharing does require special support from the server side, available from Communigate Pro and Linksys own SPA9000 key system/pbx hybrid, though not yet Asterisk.

While the features are what one has come to expect from Linksys and other high end IP phone makers, what sets the SPA phone series apart is ease of access to many of those features through the phone’s web-based configuration. It’s a configuration anyone who has worked with any of the Sipura ATAs and phones and most of the IP gear released by Linksys is familiar with: tabs for Information, System, SIP settigns, Provisioning, Regional settings, Phone settings, User settings, and Extension Settings along the top, each opening it’s own page with a deluge of configurable items.

While familiar and efficient, the configuration can use a bit of sprucing up. It has changed little since Sipura released the now-discontinued SPA2000 in 2003, and feels dated. Besides improving the look, Linksys’ customers (and the company itself given its well-known aversion to technical support) would be well-served to add some form of contextual help to the hundreds of configuration settings, perhaps with the use of small pop-ups explaining them more fully.

Long in the tooth it may be, it is still a configuration that is vastly easier and more complete than any competitor’s.

Following is the complete feature for the SPA962 set as listed by Linksys:

  • Up to Six Lines with Independent Configuration and Registration
  • 320 x 240 True Color, Four Inch, Liquid Crystal Display (LCD)
  • Secure Call Support – SIP over TLS, and SRTP
  • Line Status – Active Line Indication, Name and Number
  • Menu Driven User Interface – Multiple Languages Supported
  • Digits Dialed with Number Auto-Completion
  • Shared / Bridged Line Appearance **
  • High Quality Speakerphone
  • Call Hold
  • Music on Hold **
  • Call Waiting
  • Caller ID Name and Number and Outbound Caller ID Blocking
  • Outbound Caller ID Blocking
  • Call Transfer – Attended and Blind
  • Call Conferencing
  • Automatic Redial
  • On-Hook Dialing
  • Call Pick Up – Selective and Group **
  • Call Park and UnPark **
  • Call Swap
  • Call Back on Busy
  • Call Blocking – Anonymous and Selective
  • Call Forwarding – Unconditional, No Answer, On Busy
  • Hot Line and Warm Line Automatic Calling
  • Call Logs (60 entries each): Made, Answered, and Missed Calls
  • Redial from Call Logs
  • Personal Directory with Auto-dial (100 entries)
  • Do Not Disturb (callers hear line busy tone)
  • URI (IP) Dialing Support (Vanity Numbers)
  • On Hook Default Audio Configuration (Speakerphone and Headset)
  • Multiple Ring Tones with Selectable Ring Tone per Line
  • Called Number with Directory Name Matching
  • Call Number using Name – Directory Matching or via Caller ID
  • Subsequent Incoming Calls with Calling Name and Number
  • Date and Time with Intelligent Daylight Savings Support
  • Call Duration and Start Time Stored in Call Logs
  • Call Timer
  • Name and Identity (Text) Displayed at Start Up
  • Distinctive Ringing Based on Calling and Called Number
  • Ten User Downloadable Ring Tones – Ring Tone Generator Free from www.linksys.com
  • Speed Dialing
  • Configurable Dial/Numbering Plan Support – per Line
  • Intercom **
  • Group Paging **
  • DNS SRV and Multiple A Records for Proxy Lookup and Proxy Redundancy
  • Syslog, Debug, Report Generation, and Event Logging
  • Secure Call Encrypted Voice Communication Support – SIP over TLS, and SRTP
  • Built-in Web Server for Administration and Configuration with Multiple Security Levels
  • Automated Provisioning, Multiple Methods. Up to 256 Bit Encryption: (HTTP, HTTPS, TFTP)
  • Optionally Require Admin Password to Reset Unit to factory Defaults

** Feature requires support by SIP server

Performance and Innovation

The performance of the SPA962 is on par with the 7970G and IP601 in all areas, though the Polycom offering does have a distinct advantage in one: speaker phone.

Polycom, of course, cut its teeth on the speaker phone and it’s tentacled phone pods have become standard decor at the center of many corporate conference tables. That same technology is put to use on the IP phones the company sells and no one, not even Cisco (which licenses Polycom speaker phone technology for use on their phones) comes close in speaker phone quality.

On the SPA962 we tested, when using the speakerphone, those we called reported our voice to be over-amplified and difficult to understand. Tweaking the “Speakerphone Input Gain” setting in the web configuration did not help matters much. This condition, however, is not atypical of pre-release Linksys firmware builds, usually fixed come general release.

Otherwise, sound quality through the handset and headset port was superb, and reached CD-like levels on IP-to-IP calls that bypass the PSTN and it’s digital-to-analog conversion needs.

Provided the speaker phone sound quality issues we faced are fixed — and Linksys assures us they will be by the time the phone is available to the general public — this phone is well-suitedto any business environment. Overall, the performance of the Linksys SPA962, puts it among the best in class.

Conclusion

Linksys is taking a big step forward with the impending release of its SPA962 and poised to take on Polycom and its own parent company, Cisco, in battle for a square foot of space on every corporate desktop.

If purchasing decisions were made solely on merit and value, Linksys would win handily. The Cisco 7970 is its only real competition in the six-line, color-screen arena, and the two phones are pretty much alike, though the Linksys offering wins hands down when it comes to ease of installation, inter-operability and price.

A comparison with the Polycom IP601 is a bit trickier. The Polycom is slightly less expensive. And while the display on the Linksys is a significant step up from the monochrome offering on the IP601, it’s not clear whether color is enough to sway business buyers to go with a brand that has yet to make much of a dent outside the consumer world.

The Polycom’s speaker phone is a definite point in its favor. But the Linksys has a huge edge when it comes to ease of installation. In larger office settings that depend on automated provisioning of IP telephones, the SPA962, with its array of remote configuration tools, may be a much better choice. Though Polycom has recently made major improvements in this area, it still has a ways to go.

The SPA962 will probably make significant inroads as soon as it hits the market, as it should given its clear quality and value advantage in today’s market.

But the IP telephone is, at best, a temporary technology that eases the transition towards an entirely internet-based communications system. As the business VoIP market continues to mature, and the hardware and software manufacturers begin to develop serious communications tools based on the PC platform — imagine “drag-and-drop” call transfers, “click-into” conference calls, pop-up menu-driven on-the-fly call management, and an infinite number of lines — the business handset of today may quickly disappear.

Of course, the market’s not quite ready for telephony on a computer and Linksys, which grew rapidly in the consumer network space by nimbly purchasing new technologies and discarding them just as quickly as they fell out of favor, understands this.

Today, the company is on a quest for utter domination of the VoIP equipment space. With the Sipura team firmly entrenched at Linksys and releasing exciting new products such as the SPA962 regularly, it doesn’t look like anyone’s going to get in the way anytime soon.

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