Recently, we had our first encounter with a communications ‘docking station’ device, the iFusion Smartstation (Pub date 12/11) from Altigen Communications. According to Altigen, the iFusion will help its users get rid of their ‘redundant desktop phones’ by allowing them to transform their smartphones—as long they're using the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, or iPhone 3—into true, business-class desk phones for the office.
The premise behind the iFusion is something that many of us at OnSIP have been waiting for; ever since the first mobile soft phone applications were introduced. If we look at the consumer telecommunications market, an increasing number of people are ‘cord cutting’ and getting rid of the traditional wireline services in their homes. According to the CDC, nearly 30% of homes in the last half of 2010 used only wireless phones. My guess is that the percentage of ‘cord cutters’ will only get bigger as time passes.
Now, of course switching out desk phones for wireless devices doesn’t make as much sense in the workplace if you and your coworkers are going to be sitting at your desks all day, so instead, the iFusion allows you to dock your mobile phone and use the native Phone app or a VoIP softphone app in the same way (more or less) you would a regular desktop phone.
If this works flawlessly, it means you no longer need to buy a separate desk phone to use in the workplace. All you would need is a very reliable VoIP softphone application registered with your work number that you can switch on when you walk into the office.
It is very important to note that the iFusion is not a phone. It’s strictly a ‘docking station’ device. The actual phone you’ll be using with the iFusion is the soft phone app running on your iPhone. Altigen does in fact offer an accompanying VoIP softphone application called Altigen MaxMobile. You can download it for free on the App Store, but it requires that you have AltiGen’s MaxCS Server v6.5 Update 1 deployed as a local gateway or IP PBX.
I was quite pleased with the overall look and feel of the SmartStation. Since it ‘interfaces’ only with the iPhone, it should come as no surprise that the design elements of the device reflect a minimalistic approach; no different from many of the accessories out there made especially to accompany an Apple product. The front-facing plastic is glossy exactly like an iPhone and comes in two colors, white or black. The sides of the device and the area where the iPhone sits in the dock are a flat, grey color.
In the back is a matte metal stand that holds the unit upright. There is only one height and tilt level. Underneath, a spring-loaded panel hides all the plugs, jacks, and ports. These include the handset jack, power supply, mini-USB port for syncing with your PC/Mac, and a 3.5mm port for external speakers.
The iFusion has 5 buttons, all of which are located under the docking area in a horizontal panel: one to pair with an iPhone via Bluetooth, one to self-mute, one to activate the speaker, and two to adjust volume. Lightly tapping on these buttons seems to work just as effectively as pressing down on them firmly.
The handset weighs in at 7 ounces and feels substantial in your hand. The speaker is located under the handset, just like in most traditional desk phones. Overall, the hardware elements seem very well made.
Since the iFusion isn’t actually a phone, users don’t provision their VoIP accounts on the device. If you are planning on using VoIP, we are going to assume that you already have a mobile softphone application on your iPhone configured with your SIP user credentials. We used Bria for iPhone; you can find configuration instructions for the app here. If you’re using another app, please consult the app’s creator for configuration instructions. Be sure that whatever app you are using is Bluetooth enabled; otherwise, it won’t work with the iFusion at all.
To connect your iPhone to the iFusion Smartstation, make sure that Bluetooth is enabled (Settings > General > Bluetooth). Next, press, hold down, and release the Bluetooth pairing button on the iFusion. This button blinks slowly when the docking station isn’t connected, blinks very quickly when it’s connecting, and stays lit when linked. When the button is blinking very quickly, you should see the iFusion pop up under ‘Devices’ on your iPhone’s Bluetooth screen. Simply click on the option to pair the two devices.
Again, the iFusion isn’t actually a phone. Our JN Interoperability test isn’t applicable.
I did not notice any significant voice quality increase or decrease when using the iFusion versus using just the ‘Phone’ app or a VoIP soft phone application during calls. What the device does do is increase the volume of the audio stream. You can make your calls noticeably louder if you’re using the handset (vs using iPhone ear speaker) and much louder if you’re using the iFusion speaker (vs iPhone speakerphone).
The iFusion does three things. It acts as a Bluetooth speakerphone and handset, it charges your iPhone, and it can be used as a speaker to play your music. Let’s first address the Bluetooth capabilities, and how this is used to emulate the desk phone experience. It’s worthwhile to recognize that you don’t have to have your iPhone docked to use the iFusion. I’m not sure what the exact range is, but I will say that there have been several times when I’ve walked into the office listening to music on my iPhone and the song I was listening to automatically started playing on the iFusion speaker. These made for some embarrassing entrances.
Do note that there is a way to prevent this from happening. If you Bluetooth pair with your iPhone in the dock, audio (music and calls) will only play through the speakers when your phone is physically docked. Bluetooth pair with your iPhone not in the dock and iFusion will kick in the moment your phone gets into range. The second option allows users to do things like write emails or send text messages (much easier when your phone is actually in your hand) and still use the iFusion handset or speakerphone for a call. The difference between 'in the dock' and 'out of dock' Bluetooth pairing is actually a huge difference for VoIP users and I will expand on what I mean when I talk about using the iFusion with SIP soft phone applications.
The iFusion is—as far as we can tell—perfectly integrated with the native iPhone ‘Phone’ application. Picking up the handset will answer an incoming call, hitting the speaker button will automatically answer an incoming call and put it through the iFusion speakerphone, and hanging up the handset will terminate the existing call on your iPhone. When used with the native ‘Phone’ app, the iFusion does a great job of mimicking the functionality of a desk phone. You can also easily do things like pick up the call with the iFusion handset, decide that you want to talk while walking around the office, and seamlessly continue the conversation using your iPhone. This is possible because the native ‘Phone’ app allows you to choose your audio source mid-call. The VoIP application we tested with the iFusion did not have this option (See the image comparison below - the first two images are from native 'Phone' app, the last one is from Bria).
To use the iFusion at all with OnSIP or any other SIP provider, you will need a Bluetooth capable soft phone application. Bria for iPhone is one of the only apps we know of that fulfill this requirement. Unfortunately there are some limitations. When used with Bria, picking up the iFusion handset does not answer an incoming call. We had to answer incoming calls using the Bria app on our iPhone, which sent the call through via the iFusion speakerphone and kind of ruined the whole ‘desktop phone feeling’ of the combination. Pick up the handset afterwards and you will be able to continue the call using the handset as expected, but hanging up doesn't terminate the call. It also doesn't put the call back through the iFusion speaker; in fact, it doesn't do anything. Audio keeps coming through the handset speaker even when you've hung it up which is odd. You'll need to hit the speaker button if you want to put the call back through the iFusion speaker and you'll need to hang up your call using the Bria app on your iPhone.
If you're planning on using Bria, taking a call on your iFusion handset or speaker, and then getting up at some point to continue the same call on your iPhone, then it is absolutely necessary that you Bluetooth pair the two devices with your iPhone in the docking station. This is incredibly important because there is no ‘audio source’ option in the Bria app (or any other VoIP softphone app I’ve tried) that allows you to choose where you would like to take your call. The native iPhone 'Phone' app has this; VoIP users don't have this luxury. Bluetooth pairing with your iPhone in the dock ensures that the call goes through your iPhone mic / speakers when you lift your phone out of the dock, and that the call uses iFusion when your phone is docked.
If you pair your iPhone and the iFusion with your phone outside the dock, you might run into something like this when you try to lift your iPhone midcall and continue your conversation as you walk out the door (Quoting myself here):
"I was trying to figure out a way to force the Bria app on my iPhone to become the ‘audio source’ during a call, and was actually able to make this happen by hitting the speakerphone button in the app. It certainly wasn’t ideal because I still couldn’t use the iPhone ear speaker, but at least it allowed for more mobile convergence than nothing. What I didn’t know is that this would inadvertently screw up the iFusion/Bria combo. For a long time after my test, it seemed like any Bluetooh integration between the Bria app and the iFusion Smartstation stopped working completely, and it was only after I turned Bluetooth off/on again in my iPhone settings that I was able to get it working again."
Don't do that. Simply pair your iPhone and iFusion with the phone in the dock and you won't have to worry about that happening.
I notice a little bit of lag switching between audio sources by docking and undocking my phone. I answered a call with my iPhone in the dock (iFusion speaker audio), lifted my phone out (iPhone audio source), then placed my phone back into the dock and picked up the iFusion handset, and there was about a good 5 seconds when the handset wasn't picking up anything.
It’s probably accurate to say that—at least currently—the integration between the iFusion Smartstation and provider-agnostic VoIP softphones like the Bria is imperfect. It's passable, but not fantastic. The good news is that Altigen, the company behind the iFusion, is currently reaching out to service providers for partnerships. According to a source from Altigen, they’ve currently tested and certified the iFusion with Skype and a SIP client from AT&T.
There isn’t much to say about the dock/charging station itself except that there’s a good chance it won’t accommodate your iPhone case.
And, finally, if you’re wondering how the speakers handle playing music, let me just say that there are devices out there specifically designed for that purpose which perform better.
I’m completely on board with the premise behind the iFusion Smartstation because I love the idea of getting rid of redundant phones. I think people should have one physical phone in their lives, their mobile device. Right now, I am able to take and make calls with my business number (using Bria) on my iPhone so I already don’t need my desk phone. However, when I’m deskbound for hours at a time at work, I prefer to take my calls using a traditional handset or a real full duplex speakerphone that I don’t have to yell into. Call it nostalgia. The Smartstation fills that missing gap.
When paired with the native ‘Phone’ application on the iPhone, the iFusion does a great job of creating a desk phone experience. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the VoIP softphone applications we tried to use with the device but we’re optimistic about future application integrations with this product. We will provide updates here as we get them.