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Product Reviews
 October 2001


IP 200

ESI (Estech Systems, Inc.)
2601 Summit Ave.
Plano, TX 75074
Phone: 972-422-9700
Fax: 972-422-9705

$ 549.00 per seat for the system. Individual desktop set price is $370.00 per unit. Remote Phone is $495.00 per unit. $300.00 and $350.00 for the Soft Phone and the remote version of the Soft Phone, respectively.

Editor's Choice Award

Installation: 4.5
Documentation: 4.5
Features: 4.75
GUI: 4
Overall: A-

NOTE: TMC Labs tests a lot of different phone systems: PC-PBXs, IP-PBXs -- and let's not forget the PC-PBXs that think they're IP-PBXs, and vice-versa. In any event, there's a common thread between many of the systems we test: Most of them are purchased through, and installed by, a vendor or certified reseller. This is indeed true of ESI as well. The resellers handle the initial system integration, and various levels of system maintenance thereafter. As a result we tended to shy away from discussing too many details handled by the resellers. But we thought it important enough to provide a quick overview of the installation process, perhaps providing a better sense of an installation time frame, since similarities in company facilities are about as common as two identical fingerprints.

ESI debuted the IP series in April of this year, and in our opinion they've developed a true "one-wire" IP system. The system's hardware and software are proprietary, operating out of surprisingly small and stylish black box, housing its own cards, and connected to its own phones. The phones are well made and house generous amounts of programmable feature keys, which provides a healthy dose of insight into a portion of their product's appeal -- lots of easy-to-use, customizable features.

Installing the IP-PBX at the premise location is handled exclusively through a certified, qualified system reseller as previously mentioned. Additionally, resellers will install all of the proprietary system cards: 303 and 600 analog cards, T1, and PRI cards. Time of premise implementation varies, pending many variables. Once the unit and extensions are installed, programming the system isn't difficult. ESI states that they have a network of more than 500 Certified Resellers nationwide.

Programming the system can be done either through the use of any phone, or though an administrative GUI titled "ESI-Access." ESI supplied us with a small setup .exe, an .ini file, and a few other files that comprised the software. We installed it on a machine running Windows 98, with a Pentium III and 64 MB of RAM. Via a RS 232 cable, we connected the PC to the IP 200's serial port labeled "Maintenance," and launched the ESI-Access software. This gives an administrator access to an actual visual, which can be easier for, say, the purpose of quick-reference than utilizing a station set, providing accessibility to almost all functions of the system.

All in all, the installation wasn't difficult. It was merely a matter of assigning a static IP address to the IP-PBX and connecting it to the LAN. Additional hardware may be required, as each phone needs its own connection to the LAN via 10BaseT, 100BaseT, or 10/100BaseT connections. Using one of our 10BaseT hubs, we added three phones and the IP-PBX to our network. The "PC" RJ-45 jack on all of the feature phones can be used to connect a user's computer, so as to not require another separate network connection. This is a great feature. Finally, (as with all phone system tests) TMC Labs performed what can be, depending upon the number of users, the somewhat daunting task of programming individual station sets. The IP 200 does, however, afford several features to get the system operational quickly. The first few station sets took us about 10 to 15 minutes each to set up and customize. However, once you refine the process and define exactly how each extension should be configured, that time should diminish significantly.

ESI provided us with a reseller study guide and a user's guide with their product. Both are detailed, chronologically constructed, and well organized. Complete with a table of contents and an index, the documentation provided a comprehensive collection of data for us to reference on occasion. In addition, it's a great way to become familiar with the entire feature set of the phone. We wouldn't have been aware of things like shortcuts for example, "When leaving a message in another mailbox, press '1' during the personal greeting to advance directly to the record tone without having to listen to the remainder of the greeting." The user manual can also be referenced on the Web, by simply navigating to ESIs homepage and clicking on the link. The feature phones are also equipped with "Help Mode," which provides a combination of verbal information, displayed queues on the feature phone display, and key illumination. This interactive, context-sensitive help is instrumental in familiarizing users with their new phone, providing detailed information on how to customize their station set.

The IP 200 houses up to 198 call-processing ports, 140 hours of voice storage, and a up to 30 analog ports. Voice mail provides up to 16 built-in channels, 64 kbps sampling, different mailbox types, off premise "reach me," and more. The unit also has a built-in, six-level, 100-branch automated attendant. The built-in ACD is capable of routing calls within designated departments based on agent availability. TAPI support works in conjunction with Caller ID capabilities allowing integration with ACT!, Microsoft Outlook, and Goldmine. IP Feature Phone has a two-line display, 16 programmable feature keys, speakerphone, headset operation, Esi-Dex speed-dialing, Verbal Help key and more, including:

  • T1 and PRI support;
  • Follow-me forwarding;
  • 10Base-T, 100Base-T, and 10/100Base-T compatibility;
  • Live call recording and screening; and
  • Remote feature phone capability.

Programming the phones is something that vendors will do for you, however let's face it, the vendor isn't going to be there for you each time your business has to "let go" an employee or hire some new ones. Usually each time something like this occurs, some sort of configuration, or reconfiguration becomes necessary. This is the job of MIS, or IT, or whatever titles your company chooses to label its department handling the interface with the packet-based world. Fortunately, simple phone programming and end-user programming requires little work. Verbal Help keys provide thoughtful and context sensitive help on any level -- administrative, installer, or just plain user.

The IP-PBX uses something ESI calls "EHCP" which is their own, proprietary version of DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) that additionally does not interfere with any DHCP communication on the network. Plugging a phone into any network interface will get it instantly recognized by the IP-PBX, and identified by the system. Seasoned ESI system installers no doubt have the upper hand as far as programming proficiency goes. As with system programming, any phone can be programmed through any other phone, or station set. That is, the vendor can sit down in front of one feature phone and program the entire system including all the extensions, automated attendants -- record voice prompts, create voice mail boxes, and so forth. These tasks are greatly streamlined when an installer/system programmer knows all of the "function calls," or phone keypad numbers to press, in the correct order to get the system, or extension to do what they want it to do in short order, without having to listen to all of the prompts. It was apparent to us that this was the case when ESI sales engineers came into the Lab to demo the system.

The phone's systems menu is designed with a great deal of logic, and is created using a hierarchal paradigm, allowing a common sense of sorts to govern your fingers, making for a quick understanding of the menu setup. The verbal prompts are named and organized well, allowing an intuitive interface.

As a system owner, most of the tasks being performed with any degree of regularity will be adding new users and/or reconfiguring old extensions. After plugging in a new phone to any available hub, it's just a matter of typing in an installer password and pressing a few keys to assign an extension. It shouldn't take an IT person more than a minute to have a phone online, ready to make calls, at least without defining an extensions feature set. Here's where the Windows-based Administrative GUI came into play. It seemed easier for us to have a visual when programming extensions. "F32", or "function call thirty-two" in ESI jargon, gets you to the Feature Authorization menu using a phone in order to program the features an extension is authorized to utilize. Outbound toll calls, extension forwarding, etc... We found it much easier to define using the GUI interface, which allowed us to see most of the feature choices at once, in addition to simply clicking on their respective checkboxes, in comparison to using the feature phone and the voice prompts. There are two programming functions however, that must be performed using the phones, and not the GUI. The system cannot be initialized using the GUI, meaning that all programming is removed from the system and the system and extension parameters must be redefined. Additionally, voice prompts cannot be recorded using the GUI.

Once the unit was configured on our LAN, and extensions were connected to a hub and features were authorized, we did some calling. First off, calls made on our LAN were crystal clear. Additionally, we never experienced any "dropped" calls. Conferencing-in different parties is as simple as pressing the button marked CONF and dialing the extension you'd like to connect to. According to the documentation, up to four parties can be linked via the conferencing feature at any one time. Additionally, up to 24 parties can be supported on conference calls within the system at one time. Since ESI only provided us with four feature phones, we were curious, but unable, to test the result of a five- or six-party conference, for example.

Remote Phone
Testing the Remote Phone and its capabilities is one of the system elements we looked forward to testing the most. Still in beta at the time of our tests, the phone was just about ready for release. The ideal of a remote phone is both far-reaching and cost-effective, which is one important premise that Internet telephony is based on, as it allows users to connect to the PBX via the Internet, and enjoy toll-free calling from anywhere an Ethernet connection is available. We were very eager to get our hands on one and configure it for testing.

The phone will come bundled with its own installation CD according to an ESI official. We received a prototype of the software via e-mail in the screwed-down form of a WinZip file. The software is essentially for addressing the phone both to the IP-PBX that it's working with, and assigning it an IP address. Incidentally, if you're wondering what the IP-PBX phone looks like, it is identical in appearance to the feature phone.

Since the phone's PKT MAC address is its unique identifier, all we had to do was connect the phone and the computer with the phone's software to our LAN. Additionally, we simply needed to fill in the fields with the correct addresses -- one of which was putting in ESI's IP-PBX IP address located in Texas. We had previously mapped and reserved an external IP address to the phone's internal IP for firewall penetration.

As soon as the addressing information was loaded into the phone, it beeped, and the Lab's low computer hum was chopped by an ESI engineer's inquiry via speakerphone: "Hello, are you there?" We didn't even have the chance to communicate that the software was loaded and that the phone was ready before it came to life. TMC Labs in Norwalk, CT was connected and exchanging packets with the IP-PBX in ESI's Plano, TX headquarters. The phone beeped (as to announce a call) several more times in the next five minutes or so, and each beep was followed by the clear and optimistic voices of ESI employees, as TMC Labs was now programmed into their Esi-Dex.

Call quality at most times was very good. On none of the calls (we also made a few calls through the box in Texas, which hopped off to the PSTN) were our engineers able to detect any audible latency. We did experience some static and breakup as the packets passed through the Internet's unruly routers.

This product was released in April of this year, and ESI's many years in the business of building and designing phone systems are apparent in this first release of the IP 200 system. There are, however, a few things that could have either been added, or done a little differently to improve the offering.

One of the features many PC-PBXs offer is TAPI integration allowing a user's telephone to work in conjunction with their computer. The result of this is usually some sort of GUI affording another avenue to program the phone, transfer calls, alert the user of an incoming call, and if the system supports Caller ID information, as this one does, it should also display who the call is from, just as the smaller LCD does on the feature phone. At the time of our testing, ESI's "Soft Phone" was in the alpha-testing stages. Though we never got a hold of the software for the end-user GUI, we're told that it performs all the programming functions that the phone itself can, and therefore it wasn't targeted as something with room for improvement, as originally intended.

Web-based system management should provide any administrator with "all the comforts of home." Interfacing with the IP-PBX to apply system programming preferences could only be done one of two ways: Via a serial cable tethered to both the ESI's box and a local PC (with a version of ESI's admin. software installed); or by using one of the feature phones. Of course, this requires an administrator to be onsite. A Web-based interface would provide additional mobility for system programmers allowing the IP 200 to be programmed remotely from any PC with Internet access and a browser.

Perhaps a more far-reaching wish than an easily rectifiable quick fix: We were constantly stymied by the AC adaptors that provide the power supply interface for each feature phone. Though no bigger than most of the industry's standard plugs, they're still big, awkward, and we had trouble accommodating them unless we daisy-chained power strips. It would be great if ESI supported Ethernet inline power. This would eliminate the need for AC power, and additionally supply power to the phone system in the event of a power outage since no doubt the ESI IP-PBX and the network switches are all on UPSs. There is a standards body working on a standard for Ethernet inline power, but it has yet to come to fruition. In the meantime, a proprietary version of something similar to Cisco's or Siemens' proprietary Ethernet in-line power would be a nice addition.

The IP 200 model IP-PBX, as stated previously is a true IP-PBX system. Additionally, extensive PBX functionality accompanies the IP 200. All of the features you'd expect to find, such as call forwarding, park, call waiting, paging, call pickup, and background announce or whisper-type functionality is also offered, as well as an ample feature set that works specifically on the premise of capturing and utilizing caller-ID information.

Though we saw a few areas that would have benefited from something more, the IP 200 is a true "one-wire" system with a solid comprehension of what needs to be considered and incorporated into a cutting edge phone system. The IP 200 was very easy to configure from both the administrator and end-user perspectives. And Verbal Help keys afford the necessary assistance providing phone users with a more readily available, at-a-touch-of-a-finger alternative to dialing the system administrator and begging for directions how to customize their station set.

Lastly, a statement made by ESI itself on their Web site states, "ESI products are designed with combined proprietary hardware and software platforms." The upside to a company that manufactures its own software and hardware (including the phones in this case), is that often their systems are much more tightly integrated. Generally speaking, they have only to consider their own product, and not contend with designing a solution compatible with different industry players. The downside is that if they go, your system is history too, as most times hardware and other integral system components become irreplaceable. And if you escape that pitfall, you're stuck with the technology of the era in which you last upgraded your system. That is, you'll no longer be able to upgrade the system to reflect the industry's new wares and breakthroughs, which we all quickly seem to adapt to and expect to become instantly ubiquitous -- such as Caller ID for example. Additionally, you'll probably no longer have the benefit of vendor assistance, should your company require it. Though in this case the company, Estech Systems, Inc., however, has been around for quite a while (founded in 1987 to be exact). We'd be willing to gamble that they're not planning on closing up anytime soon. ESIs IP 200 Series IP phone system was an easy pick for an Editors' Choice award.

[ Return To The October 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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