What You Must Know Before Buying a VOIP Handset

By: Chuck Parrish

With the recent growth in VOIP and internet telephones, there has also been an increase in the selection of hardware available for use with VOIP. This new array of hardware can sometimes be confusing to the user shopping for a VOIP phone system. This article will attempt to explain the different types of VOIP phone systems that are available, and offer some suggestions as to what to look for when selecting one that meets your needs.

VOIP phone systems can be grouped into three broad categories. 1) USB handsets, also referred to as VOIP or IP handsets, 2) Handsets with built-in interfaces to high-speed internet connections, referred to as hardphones and 3) Adapters which interface regular analog telephones to high-speed internet connections, referred to as ATAs (Analog Telephone Adapters) or IP Phone Adapters.

The first category, that of USB handsets, can be further divided into two types. The first type is simply a handset with earpiece and microphone and possibly a keypad and display, that interfaces to a PC softphone (such as those provided by Skype, Firefly, etc). This type handles only the analog voice signals, touch tone generation and display of call id information, while the softphone application takes care of the rest of the implementation of the internet telephone.

The second type of USB handset will have a keypad, display, earpiece and mouthpiece much like the first type. However, this type will come with driver software that interfaces the handset directly to the high-speed internet connection. This software will run in the background, much like a printer or modem driver. All of the dialing, display and voice conversion is handled by the handset, and a PC softphone is not required.

USB handsets are available in corded and cordless versions. The corded handset will plug directly into the USB port using a USB cable. The cordless versions will have a base station that plugs into the USB port, while the handset maintains a wireless connection to the base station. This type of cordless phone operates on the same frequencies that regular analog cordless phones use.

VOIP phone systems in the second category, handsets with built-in interfaces to high-speed internet connections (hardphones), operate independently of a PC and they connect directly to the Ethernet port on your DSL or cable modem or router. This type of handset offers the most features, and can range from a corded handset to a complete desktop phone with speakerphone. In this category you will see all of the same features that are available in regular analog telephones, with the addition of some features unique to internet telephones. This can include features such as videophone capability, interface to SIP providers and built-in data ports.

Hardphones are also available that connect to the high-speed internet connection using WLAN or WiFi. These phones provide the greatest flexibility, as there is no cabling involved at all since they simply require an active wireless lan connection within range.

The third category, that of ATAs or IP Phone Adapters, require a regular analog telephone in order to implement a complete internet telephone. You would probably want to use an ATA if you already own a sophisticated wireless analog phone system with multiple handsets. ATAs cost a good deal less than hardphones, and allow you to take advantage of your existing telephone hardware. ATAs, like hardphones, are also available with WLAN and WiFi interfaces to your high-speed internet connection.

Some features to look for in VOIP handsets include video capability, handset speakerphone, intercom feature, color lcd display, built-in data ports and selectable handset ringtones. A major consideration when choosing an internet telephone system is compatibility with your provider. Be sure to check the manufacturers specifications, as well as whether or not your VOIP service provider recommends or supports a given phone system.

Some of the major brands of VOIP handsets are Vtech, Uniden, Phillips, US Robotics and Radian Technologies. Linksys and Dlink are two companies with extensive experience in data networking that produce ATA-type equipment. Vtech and Uniden offer some of the most advanced cordless VOIP handsets and hardphones. Their leadership in the area of traditional analog cordless phones has given them an advantage in producing feature-rich internet telephone systems. Linksys and Dlink offer some of the most capable hardware in the area of ATA-type equipment, including multi-port ATAs and routers or modems with built-in ATAs.

As you can see, there is a wide selection of equipment available for implementing an internet telephone. When choosing equipment, look for hardware that is easy to connect and configure, and as simple to operate as possible. Ideally, using VOIP handsets should be no more complicated than using a regular analog telephone, but with the benefit of the added features unique to internet telephones.

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