TeleSym SymPhone

Price: $3,750, ten-user system

Looking for a way to turn your Pocket PC into a cell phone? Well, TeleSym’s SymPhone is not the solution for you. But, it you want a way to turn all the Pocket PC units deployed in your business into useful Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phones for internal use, the SymPhone system is exactly what you’re looking. At first glance, the SymPhone price may seem high, but if you look closely it all begins to make sense. First, the SymPhone is in no way, shape or form a consumer product. It’s a business product first and foremost. When you compare its cost to, say, giving ten employees cell phones with their accompanying monthly bills, SymPhone makes sense and saves cents.

SymPhone is meant for use in office or warehouse environments that has already switched over to an 802.11b network. The SymPhone Client should also work, however, with higher speed Wireless LANs (WLAN)s like 802.11a. With only a Symbol Technologies Spectrum24 High Rate 802.11b for Pocket PC on hand though, I was, however, unable to test this.

You may not need the 54Mbps speed of 802.11a anyway. On my 802.11b network with a D-Link DWL-6000AP cranked up to provide network traffic with a constant 30% of utilization–a very high percentage compared to normal use– I was still able to make clear connections every time. In ad hoc mode, using a variety of D-Link and NetGear wireless network interface cards (NIC)s, there were some dropouts. However, frankly, deploying SymPhone in ad hoc mode would be an administrative mistake, and says little of how the SymPhone system itself.

The voice quality remained decent all the way down to 2Mbps rates. Ideally, though you want to keep SymPhone equipped PDAs within 5.5Mbps and above for regular use. When you do lose a connection it can take as long as a minute to restore. That’s acceptable for data, but pure misery for voice traffic.

That said, when connected, you’ll be surprised at the excellence of the voice quality. Given the network load, the latency of any WLAN network and the inevitable packet loss due to the presence and use of conventional 2.4GHz cordless phones, the quality of the voice calls were shockingly good.

To make all this happen, the SymPhone system uses three parts: the SymPhone Client; the SymPhone Call Server; and the 3Com NBX 100SymPhone Connector in a bundle called the SymPhone NP so you can use the company PBX to make calls to the outside world using your Wi-Fi PocketPC. If you just want to use the PDA just for phone calls within the company, you can use just the SymPhone N package.

The SymPhone Client 1.0a is a VoIP application that runs on PDAs using Microsoft Pocket PC 2002. There is also a beta version that runs on W2K and XP workstations using both WLANs and conventional LANs. With both, you can make calls from your desk to a colleague who’s roaming the office floor with their PDA.

I ran the Client on a Compaq iPAQ 3870, a top of the line Pocket PC with 64MBs of RAM. The Client, though, can run on lower-powered PDAs. With a mere 500KB memory footprint, any Pocket PC with a wireless connection should be able to run it.

I also ran the beta desktop client on a 700 MHz Toshiba Satellite laptop using 802.11b+ and a HP Pavilion 521n with a 1.4GHz AMD Athlon and a Fast Ethernet connection. In all cases, the Client ran flawlessly.

Unlike some VoIP programs, it also ran easily. Even on the Pocket PC, the utility’s easy to click on phone keypad and phone directory made it a pleasure to use. If you’re an old hand with a stylus, you’ll find it easier to use than a conventional cell phone.

Besides calling from device to device, with the Call Server you can make peer-to-peer calls inside your business. Curiously, instead of requiring a server operating system, the Call Server can run either on W2K Server or Pro or XP Pro. The company claims that you can also run it on XP Home, but given Home’s deficient network capabilities — e.g. you can’t use it to hook into a Domain — this would be a bad idea. It does, however, require a minimum of 512MBs of RAM, so you simply can’t take any off-the-rack W2K or XP Pro system and start running it.

For testing, I used a white-box server from Vss with a 1GHz Pentium III processor and a gigabyte of RAM running W2K Server… I could have used less of a machine. Call Server put almost no load on our server’s resources.

The Connector, however, needs a server of its own. At this point, it only works with 3Com’s NBX 100 IP Phone system. With it installed you can make and take phone calls to and from outside the company. TeleSym promises that other PBXs will be supported and, at this point, the hooks exist for a reseller or integrator to use the current system to build an application to get SymPhone to work with gateways using H.323, Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Media Gateway Control Protocol (MGCP) or Telephony Application Programming Interface (TAPI) VoIP standards.

If that sounds far too techy for you, you’re right. If you plan on using it both for in-house and public telephone calls, unless you’re using the 3Com NBX 100, you really need to partner up with a SymPhone integrator instead of trying it by yourself even if you have a good IT staff.

What it all comes down to is that I can see this being a very useful package for companies that have already made both a wireless and Pocket PC commitment — it’s certainly not for everyone. If your company has made those technology investments and has a work force that’s walking around the sales room floor or from one conference room to another, SymPhone makes perfect sense.

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