Aastra 53i

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Are you looking for a new IP phone for your office? Aastra's 53i is an attractive and very usable phone without the shocking price tag.

SIP phones provide a convenient way for relatively inexpensive internal and external communications by bypassing ordinary PSDN telephony networks in favour of broadband and internal LANs. Interstate and international communications can benefit enormously from this. Of course, handsets are not the whole story; you will need to set up SIP servers at each branch office to support this type of phone.

The name Aastra is perhaps not familiar, but don't dismiss it out of hand. The Canadian-based manufacturer has a significant share of the European enterprise telephony market.

How We Tested
When testing IP phones we are concerned with five main factors: Ease of set-up, design and ergonomics, sound quality, ease of use and features.

We also note any compatibility issues that may arise. The SIP server used in this review is a Zultys MX30. Occasionally an IP phone will take issue with this system since not all vendors are identical in their interpretation of the SIP "standard".

What's inside
The 53i is predominantly black with a silver facing around the LCD panel and short-cut and navigation buttons. The LCD supports three lines of blue text. With an international market in mind, Aastra has used pictographic button labels. Handwritten names for the short-cuts can be put onto a replaceable card, although we found it a bit fiddly trying to keep the label straight while replacing the clear protective cover. The design is fairly simple with a modern, conservative look to it. The stand can be removed and replaced in different slots providing four possible angles to suit different desk locations and in addition there is the option of wall mounting. The handset had a good feel and did not feel excessively heavy. Buttons were well spaced and had high contrast labels.

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Installation guides for SIP phones are a bit of a joke in our experience. The manual provided with this machine was no exception. We are told how to plug in the cables and adjust the viewing angle -- you know: the obvious stuff that we could all work out for ourselves in a few spare minutes. If you don't have experience with SIP phones, however (or you just want to configure a few options), you will definitely need more information than this. That means downloading the humongous tomes known as the Administrator Guide and the User Guide (about 5MB each). The 602 page Admin Guide explains the wealth of options but is loathe to tell us which ones are most likely be to be necessary for connecting to your SIP server. Of course your business would most likely have the vendor come and install the system and provide the essential details to your own system administrators, but it would still be nice to have a shorter essentials guide so admin staff don't have to keep quite so much in their heads.

Whether one uses the phone's internal interface or a Web interface, it's possible to get the phone up and running on your SIP network in a few minutes. All the phone really needs to know is IP settings for itself and the SIP server (and any proxies which might be in place) plus a phone number, password and username. The short-cut keys are assigned default values including Save, Directory and Conference; these be changed via the Web user interface. You will need to note down these functions on the card provided as there are no identifying marks on the buttons themselves. The configuration menu is not hard to use, but the Web interface is preferable and provides for more options.

Voice quality with this phone was very clear, both in transmission and reception. We did not experience any significant echoes or tinniness as we sometimes find in these systems. The microphone sensitivity is adequate without being excessive and we did not experience distraction from background noises.

Despite my diatribe about manuals the Aastra 53i is very usable and well adapted to modern network requirements. The 53i supports such features as the open source Asterisk telephony system, NAT traversal, call forwarding, conferencing and XML browser support. We were pleased to find that we experienced no compatibility problems in linking the Aastra phone to a Zultys server.

Aastra provide a one year warranty on this product; unfortunately the user must bear the cost of returning the product to the vendor for repair or replacement. Aastra also have a selection of more advanced models with features to suit special needs, such as multiple simultaneous call handling.

This telephone is not only functional, but also attractively styled and priced. It has many useful features, flexibility through configuration of short-cut keys and other items, plus it displays above average sound quality. I would have liked to have found the backlight mentioned in the installation guide (but not the manual).

Other phones may have more advanced interfaces and more bloated feature sets, but this device provides commion features for most scenarios and does so in a package more attractive than most on offer. Overall the Aastra 53i is a pleasant machine worthy of your consideration.