SIP-based softphones make the grade

CounterPath's product earns top spot for feature set

Since we first tested softphones in 2002, they have improved to tap into wider broadband pipes, faster CPUs and more capable versions of Windows. They're less expensive, too.

CounterPath and DiamondWare offer viable SIP softphones that provide basic phone services with acceptable voice quality. Geared more toward an OEM market where partners might build on their own features, the DiamondWare Wi-Fone is a straightforward basic softphone. The eyeBeam maximizes the feature support available within SIP specifications and adds video support, which is why it came out on top in this test.

ProducteyeBeam 1.5Wi-Fone 0.9
VendorCounterPathDiamondWare
Price as testedStarts at $60 per license.$50 per user on average.
ProsComprehensive feature set, voice and video support, flexible setup and configuration.Simple interface, internationally calling friendly, zero-configuration deployment.
Cons

Some features required advanced knowledge.

Limited feature set, no prseence available.
Score4.63.85
The breakdown CounterPathDiamondWare
Interoperability 25%55
Voice quality 25%44
Features 20%52
Ease of use 15%45
Configurability 15%53
TOTAL SCORE4.603.85

Scoring Key: 5: Exceptional; 4: Very good; 3: Average; 2: Below average; 1: Subpar or not available

Check out our IP Phones Buyer's Guide

CounterPath eyeBeam

The eyeBeam is a comprehensive, full-feature voice and video SIP-based softphone. Installation was simple and straightforward. There were five setup questions to answer, and then we had to restart the Windows XP system running the application. The eyeBeam also runs on Microsoft Windows 98, NT or 2000. However, the video feature is supported only on Windows 2000 or XP.

The hardware specifications are minimal. Optimally CounterPath recommends 30MB of hard disk space, 128MB of RAM, a Pentium III 1.3-GHz (Pentium 4 2.0-GHz and 256MB of RAM for video) and a sound card. Once launched, the eyeBeam will automatically detect whethe a headset, including Bluetooth, is present and set the default audio path.

The eyeBeam requires a user account and the SIP server ID address for registration, and it successfully registered to all of the SIP back-end systems (see How we did it). It can register as many as 10 SIP accounts and supports as many as six phone-line appearances. After registration, calls could be placed to any of the other registered SIP devices on our test network.

The eyeBeam supports a wide array of narrowband audio codecs, including DVI4, G.711u/a, G.729A, GSM, iLBC & Speex (an open source codec that supports 8-, 16- and 32-KHz sampling rates). Additional wideband audio codecs (H.263, H.263+ and H.264) also are supported.

On the network side, the eyeBeam supports Secure Real-time Transport Protocol and Transport Layer Security for encrypting SIP messaging streams. Provisioning information such as SIP server, IP address and proxy IP address can be pushed down over HTTPS if required to update the clients with new information over a secure connection. Several tunneling clients are embedded into the product to aid in network address translation (NAT)/firewall traversal as well as a mechanism called Interactive Connectivity Establishment for setting up peer-to-peer connections. EyeBeam also boasts support for IPv6 addresses and IPv6 DNS lookups, which is helpful for future proofing as IPv6 becomes more widely deployed.

The application is laid out logically and has buttons for all standard telephony features. The display area shows the status of the softphone along with the current call status and caller ID information regarding incoming calls. There are buttons for the six line appearances as well as transfer, hold, record, auto answer, auto conference, do not disturb and conference. Recordings are done to local disk in AVI format.

The application also features a dial pad, separate microphone and speaker volume controls, mute, speaker phone, flash and redial buttons. If a headset is in use, the speaker phone will divert the audio playback from the headset to the speakers.

All of the features worked with both of the test IP PBX systems. It took a bit to get used to the transfer function because after hitting transfer and the desired number, the transfer key must be pressed again. Only blind transfers are supported at this time.

There are tabs on both sides of the phone display -- CounterPath refers to them as drawers -- that can be extended to accommodate featured information. The right side shows the contacts and call history; the left is for video. Contacts can be entered directly or imported from Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Outlook Express, vcards or CSV files. The eyeBeam uses SIP to provide telephony-based presence information to other SIP users on the VoIP system.

The call quality with or without the headset was excellent. Calls were placed to various endpoints as well as other softphones with no perceptible degradation. In all cases latency was less than 100 msec. At 150 msec one-way latency the discerning ear will begin to notice.

DiamondWare

The DiamondWare Wi-Fone softphone was fully released last November and is fully supported, despite the 0.9 version number. According to DiamondWare, the design goal was to keep the phone modest. Setup is unique in that users are required to answer the relevant questions (user's name, Direct Inward Dialing string, user name, password, registrar, SIP IP address, NAT, Proxy IP address and STUN [Simple Traversal of UDP through NATs] server IP address) online before downloading the code from the company's site. The user then downloads an installation package for his environment. Once installed, the softphone automatically connects and registers to the PBX based on the information provided.

The Wi-Fone is supported on Microsoft Windows XP clients with relatively minimal hardware requirements: 5MB of hard disk space, a Pentium III or higher processor, and 128MB of RAM. A Microsoft Windows Mobile version also is available but was not tested. When the application first launches it autodetects any headsets installed, including those containing Bluetooth links.

The softphone is skinable so developers can create custom GUI interfaces. The default skin has buttons for the standard telephony features: mute, do not disturb, hold, three-party conference, speaker and microphone volume control. Call history is accessible from a drop-down menu. The address book is displayed in a separate window and can import contacts from Microsoft Outlook.

For conferences larger than three parties, DiamondWare recommends its DiamondWare Platform, a stand-alone product designed to augment the PBX with presence management, paging and Internet Relay Chat, voice recording and conferencing. It features a 3-D, caller-positioning software client that lets users place individuals on the conference call around a virtual table. The software then tunes the left and right channels of the audio stream so that they are directionally representative of the participants' positions.

Similar to the eyeBeam, the call quality of the Wi-Fone softphone was excellent with and without the headsets. All call features worked with the test PBX systems and had sub-100-msec latency.

A unique feature with the Wi-Fone is a country-code button that lets users set their country of origin. Because provisioning is done online, users cannot make changes to the IP address of any of the servers, for example, without going through the original provisioning process.

Wrap-up

Commercial third-party softphones provide core telephony features. For companies that prefer not to have all their eggs in one basket, need only the fundamental telephony features and have the technical expertise in-house to integrate the phones with a SIP-based IP-PBX, these phones are a viable alternative to proprietary versions.

Tarpley, a senior engineer for Miercom, can be reached at rtarpley@miercom.com.


< Return to test introduction

Learn more about this topic

IP Phone Buyer's Guide

VOICECON - Avaya adds IP phones, gateways, SIP

03/07/07

VoIP vendors get serious about SIP

03/06/06

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.