Ok, it’s not really a PBX handset. Altigen iFusion SmartStation is a Bluetooth Speakerphone and a charging station with a handset designed to be used with an iPhone. By design it was meant to serve as a charging station and replace your office handset. I have to admit, that a thought of losing my desk phone and replacing it with a SIP softphone app on my iPhone 4S sounded enticing. One device for all needs! Now, I can really take advantage of our hosted PBX. Considering that I need a convenient place to charge my iPhone anyway, why not put it in front of me and use it as a desktop handset?
Hardware Quality and Convenience
There are a couple of things to really like about the handset itself. It feels very familiar. Altigen’s claim of comfort and ergonomic design has a merit. I have no complaints about the audio quality of the handset and the speakerphone. Out of the box, the device seems very straightforward if your goal is to use it as an audio-only phone.
Docking your iPhone is convenient even if it is wrapped in a bulky case such as Otterbox’s “Defender”. There is plenty of room between the docking port and a back wall so docking is never really an issue. Unfortunately there is not a good option to adjust viewing angle of an iPhone in order to avoid glare other than by adjusting the angle of the entire device.
If you plan to use your iPhone’s front facing camera for video calling, you are going to have to try to adjust the device’s supporting leg in order to tilt the entire handset up so that you can face the camera. Unfortunately, this also means that your handset, which does not come with an upright mounting option, will be difficult to keep from falling off. To be in front of camera you may have to raise or lower your seat or desk or even change your position to be in the camera view while talking. Being in the camera view is not enough. You also need to see the caller on the other end of that conversation which means that you have to have a pretty good vision or stay close to that 4-inch screen of an iPhone. Personally, I think an iPAD would have made a much better platform for voice and video calling and/or conferencing.
Both: the speakerphone and handset sound loud and clear. Obviously the quality of a speakerphone should really be tested with an audio or video app because voice quality of a GSM, CDMA or even wideband codecs is rather limited. The device sounds crisp and clear, streaming online radio sounded reasonably good considering that the device can only produce mono sound with its one speaker.
Practical Use as Desk Phone Replacement
I had decided not to rely on first impression and used my iPhone with iFusion at home for about a month. During that time, I have used it with Apple’s native phone app as well as with the two leading soft phones: CounterPath’s BRIA and Acrobits Groundwire. I had configured our hosted PBX for two separate mirrored extensions for each of the abovementioned SIP soft phone,
Installation of the device takes only a minute. The unit’s glossy finish looks pleasing on the desk and convenience of having an iPhone dock in front of me is always a plus especially if it lets me use various streaming apps. There is a benefit to iPhone being stationary when used on a GSM carrier network. Whether you hold an iPhone in a palm of your hand or rely on a Bluetooth headset with the phone resting in your pocket, your body continues to move and change position of antenna in relation to the wireless cell. Simply keeping the phone in one place by itself has a positive impact on reception and voice call quality.
- Dialpad is Hard To See From the Distance
My iPhone’s 4-inch screen is just too small for it to be easy to dial from 25” away. In fact it takes some getting used to not having a normal sized dialing keypad. I typically hold my iPhone in the palm of my hand less than a foot away from my eyes. With the iFusion handset usually sitting on the desk at least at twice that distance – the keypad is hard to see and subsequently, dial. I have no complaints about my vision but even with my 20-20 vision – the numbers are hard to see. Having to take the phone off the cradle each time when you need to place a call is even less convenient as you are holding a handset piece in one hand and an iPhone in another. I don’t know about you but I am all in favor of single hand dialing.
- Auto-Locking and Power Saving Features of an iPhone
iPhone is not designed to be stationary. It is designed to be mobile and preserve power. That is why auto-locking disables its screen after short (usually no more than 2 minutes) period of time. If you are trying to use an iPhone as a stationary device, you now have to press HOME button and slide your finger to remove auto-lock and, maybe, enter the code to unlock it. This procedure gets really old and the only alternative to that is changing your auto-lock option each time you pair with the handset.
- Audio Delay Answering Call
When I answer a call, there is a noticeable 2-second audio delay before calling party can hear me. That delay could get really annoying since you are expected to say something immediately after answering a call and the party on the other end can’t hear you. The issue has to do with the iPhone’s audio source selection and transfer and is widely reported with other various Bluetooth headsets.
- Missing Calls
Unlike most docking stations, iFusion relies on Bluetooth to transmit audio. Control over pairing takes place in an iPhone OS automatically as long as Bluetooth is enabled on an iPhone. I quickly found out that unit pairs with an iPhone as soon as I pull into my garage or when I walk around the house. What this means is that the iPhone could still be in my pocket when a call arrives. And since I am away from handset, I may not hear it ring.
- No Automatic Audio Source Selection
Since iFusion does not use docking port for anything but placement and charging, it seems to be “unaware” of whether phone is docked or not. This means that when you dock an iPhone, your audio selection source does not change to Bluetooth headset. The phone rings, you may try to answer the call and realize that handset is inactive. I would much rather not have iFusion pair via Bluetooth at all with all the communications taking place over Apple’s 30-pin Thunderbolt connector.
- No Voicemail Waiting Indicator
This is largely a shortcoming of a phone API but if you are used to seeing voicemail indication on your desktop handset, you can forget about it.
Turns out the “SmartStation” is not all that smart after all. The biggest problem by far with answering SIP calls on an iPhone is that cellular network call has higher priority than an ongoing SIP call. This means that an incoming GSM call from at&t network, for example, will interrupt a SIP call in progress. Although some clients, like Acrobits Groundwire allow you to play message when a call is interrupted, this behavior is hardly suitable for business communications as people just don’t expect to be interrupted in the middle of a sentence. The worst part is that there is no way around this. You can’t really disable carrier mode on an iPhone without removing a SIM card.
Another problem I have encountered is that some of the SIP softphones do not offer audio source selection option and iFusion does not report which selection is currently in effect on an iPhone. This means that if I used iPhone without the handset for placing a call and then later docked it with the handset there will be nothing to remind me to switch the audio source back to the Bluetooth device.
Overall, I think Altigen had a great idea: take a mobile device and turn it into a stationary handset by adding Bluetooth speakerphone hardware to it. Unfortunately the issue is a bit more complicated than that. iPhone is designed around being a mobile device. Surely you can use it as a TV remote or Gaming console, surveillance system or a million other things that ultra-portable computer allows you to do. But in the end it will not do them as well as the device that is purposed for that single task. There is always going to be a one extra step to perform any single function on a multifunctional device and that is selecting which function you are going to use. Can it be used? Yeah, it can, if you are willing to live with the limitations. But why not get a SIP handset that will work with your SIP-based hosted PBX.