Found an Ace in the DECT

by Dave Michels

Last June, I blogged my frustration with the current DECT IP phone offerings. I am a big fan of DECT – it is an excellent wireless technology, but the IP phone offerings have not excited me. DECT offers reasonable range and excellent clarity. The portable phone in PBX environments makes a lot of sense, but multiple factors are restricting its popularity. The SIP/DECT phones have been wanting in several categories, not to mention cost. However, I am pleased to report the Aastra 600d series of DECT phones are fairly impressive.

For VoIP, there are two choices for wireless phones; DECT and WiFi. I am not a big fan of WiFi phones. DECT is particularly attractive in smaller environments where the duplicative cost of two types of base networks is less significant. Though a big shift toward WiFi could occur if PBX makers offer proprietary soft phones on the increasingly popular smartphones. To my knowledge none have. Unlike WiFI, DECT phones are designed for voice, they offer excellent clarity and superior battery efficiency.

Most DECT phones (in the U.S.) are SIP phones. Even in the world of enterprise proprietary phones, the DECT models tend to rely on SIP. I see a large gap between SMB and enterprise DECT/SIP offerings. Most of the entry level DECT/SIP phones are useless. The enterprise offerings are meant to provide a matrix of base radios providing campus coverage with hand-off capabilities. This increases the complexity and configuration of the base units (as well as cost), while the SMB offerings tend to be single cell solutions (amoebas). The phones vary in quality too, but more so in terms of consumer versus business. As a result, the SIP/DECT phones are not easily categorized as desktop replacements – they are not as general purpose as their wired cousins.

For the past several months, I have been testing the Aastra 620d (List Price $320) along with its base/access unit the RFP (radio fixed part) 32. This Aastra phone is the finest SIP/DECT phone I have experienced.

Video: 620d unboxing.

This is an absolutely amazing phone. The phone has an excellent feel with its rubberized grips. It has a large easy-to-read TFT screen. The phone is larger than many others, actually a reasonable size. The large bright screen simplifies operation, but it is nearly impossible to read outdoors in bright sunlight. The idle screen shows the following information:

  • Extension Name
  • Extension Number
  • Associated DECT system/network
  • Time and Date
  • Signal Strength
  • Soft Key Labels
  • Battery Charge

Clarity and range are impressive yet competitive with other DECT phones. What sets the 620d apart are numerous minor nuances in design and usability. It has a bright multi-color LED light in the corner that indicates voice mail, signal loss, charging state, and charged state through various colors. The backlit keypad has single touch-and-hold mute and keypad lock. It also has three programmable soft keys.

The phone also has a 2.5 mm standard headset jack plus supports BlueTooth headsets, a USB port, a VIP button, and three additional programmable hard buttons. My favorite things about the phones:

  • Rubber grip
  • Backlit dial-pad
  • BlueTooth Support
  • Overall Size (but dial-pad is too small)
  • One touch speakerphone
  • Lots of information on the display
  • Programmable soft keys
  • USB port, primarily for charging without the cradle
  • Auto Answer when removed from the cradle

It can be used as a desktop replacement as it’s fully functional in the charging dock including access to the headset jack. The battery is rated for 200 hours in standby mode.

There are a few of things I don’t like about this solution (there always is). First and foremost is the RFP 32 base radio. It got one thing right, it is powered over Ethernet (POE) – something the SOHO models can’t figure out. But the good news stops there. The unit is too large (compared to others) and too hard to configure. To program this unit requires a JAVA applet to set its IP address, then a TFTP service to load a config file which then enables final configuration from a web browser. It loses most of its programming after a power outage, so keep that TFTP server handy. In Aastra’s defense, they are thinking big, and a TFTP server approach makes a lot of sense for large deployments. But in the lab, setup was painful compared to say setting up a Polycom Kirk 300 DECT server. The base unit should have the ability to be completely configured from a web browser and should be able to recover from a power failure.

This is the reality of DECT. That SMB/SOHO systems are too limited and the enterprise solutions are too complex. Aastra should either offer a simpler radio base unit for the 600d series phones, or create a simpler mode for the RFP 32. In theory, it should be possible to pair this phone against a simpler GAP compliant base from a different manufacturer.

The gripes are not limited to the base unit – the phones have some room for improvement too. I would seriously consider recommending this DECT phone as a desktop replacement phone if it could only do a few more simple tasks; one stand out missing feature is hands-free intercom. There isn’t a single Aastra wired phone that does not support intercom, and oddly not a single DECT model that does? Aastra also has very powerful XML capabilities on most of its desk phones – though none on the DECT phones.

The 620d offers several soft keys which are a major (desk phone-like) improvement. But if the desk phones deserve hard keys for Hold, Transfer, Redial, and DND why not the DECT/SIP phones? Even worse, soft key programming is limited to a narrow menu of options (which doesn’t include Call Transfer).

The numeric dial pad, like every other DECT/SIP phone, is over styled. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer basic flat keys with space between them. Also, the belt clip appears to be an after thought.

The Next Gen Wish List
The cell phone is rapidly becoming the standard for mobile users, but honestly this makes no sense within the walls of an office. Corridor Warriorsshould be embracing DECT phones. Here is my revised wish list of what I want to see in a DECT/SIP handset solution:

  • Friendly backlit dial-pad with distinguishable keys appropriately sized for a human fingertip.
  • HD audio capability
  • Support for handsfree Intercom
  • Phones < $200
  • Integrated belt clip
  • Hard keys for common functions (see wired phones for ideas)
  • Simple and intuitive operation

Aastra is on the right track. The 620d is a bit pricey, but the 610d is very similar for about 25 percent less. The big differences include the screen (TFT screen is replaced with a simpler LCD) and it drops BlueTooth and USB support. For a full comparison click here.

DECT has been available in Europe for much longer than in the U.S. As a result, the major U.S. DECT/SIP offerings (Aastra, Polycom, Siemens, and Snom) are largely designed for the European market. Uses and preferences differ between continents; evidently Europeans prefer small phones and have no use for paging. However, DECT phones make a lot of sense for wireless extensions, and as demand increases hopefully new models will fill the gaps.

As hosted solutions become more popular in the SOHO and SMB space – newer more intuitive options are presenting themselves. Siemens entered the market with the Gigaset DECT offering for SOHO, and even more recently Panasonic introduced a DECT/SIP solution. These companies are raising the bar with pricing and simplicity. But they lack things like multi-cell support and POE. Huge improvements over the entry-level unusable models available a year ago.

We are still a generation away from widespread adoption, but it is nice to see progress being made. The Aastra 600d series offers an impressive wireless phone solution today.