Well-designed software and plentiful features are essential to having the best softphone: effective and useful. This is especially true of the user interface (UI), where all the necessary functions must be displayed front and center, smoothly integrating voice operations with the workflow processes. In many cases, the softphone is designed to resemble a traditional telephone, with a display panel and buttons for user control, very much like a standard phone interface.
Over and above the importance of the user interface, there are a number of factors to consider when choosing the right product. We will discuss these factors in order to assist you in making an informed decision in selecting the best softphone.
There is a wide range of both free and paid softphones. In many cases, vendors offer a free, limited-feature version of their paid products. If you wish to use the free version, then you should carefully evaluate this product to see if it includes the features needed to fulfill your requirements.
The softphone is an application that runs on a standard computing device such as a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone. It is therefore essential that the softphone selected should be compatible with the operating system (such as Windows, macOS, iOS and Android) installed on your computing device.
The softphone should include the basic and enterprise capabilities that you require such as voicemail, call forwarding and transfer, call redial, hold capabilities, do not disturb, auto answer and call ignore.
Number of Lines
This defines the maximum number of calls that particular softphone can have active at any given time. Multiple lines are useful, for example, in the case where one call may be put on hold while making another outbound call.
Recording of active calls and subsequent access of that data is a useful feature found in many softphones. Note that if both voice and video calls are to be recorded, then this dual capability must be fully supported.
Text, Presence and Instant Messaging (IM)
Having access to IM is important for many business users and consumers. A softphone that supports this technology will allow you to see if your contacts are available and send and receive text-based IM directly from the user interface.
Message Waiting Indicator (MWI)
If your softphone supports voicemail, then a MWI is useful to show that there is a voicemail message available for the owner of an account, and optionally specify the number of voicemails waiting.
Most softphones provide the ability to make and receive video calls. But the best softphone offers High Definition (HD) video, so you must ensure that the selected product supports this video service.
If audio and/or video conferencing is required, ensure that the softphone supports the maximum number of participants expected on these calls. It is important to note that the number of participants for audio and video conferences may differ, depending on the product selected. In addition, the necessary conference control and functionality options (such as removing a participant from a conference or suspending the conference) must be provided.
This useful feature enables users to click on an object (such as a button, image or text) defining a contact, causing the softphone to automatically dial the phone number associated with that contact. Click-to-dial increases productivity, saves time, and phone numbers are always dialed accurately. Contacts for click-to-dial are selected from your softphone address book or from a third-party application such as Microsoft Outlook (if supported).
The intercom feature allows you to call individual extensions, but the destination phone does not ring; rather, it automatically answers the call in speakerphone mode. Audio is then transmitted between the two parties until the call is canceled.
Contact List/Address Book
A well designed and easy-to-use address book is central to managing your contacts and calls, and optimizing the use of your softphone. Additionally, it is important to select a product that allows you to import and populate the softphone contact list with existing data from applications such as Microsoft Outlook and Excel, LDAP or Microsoft Active Directory.
Integration with Other Contact Lists, Databases, and Directories
Some softphones implement compatibility with third-party applications such as Microsoft Outlook, and provide integration with shared LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) directories, Microsoft Active Directory and ODBC compatible interfaces. This feature is extremely useful for applications such as call centers, resulting in powerful and flexible customer management capabilities. For example, the caller ID for an incoming call may be matched with the telephone numbers in Microsoft Outlook contacts. If a match is found, then a pop-up notification is displayed with “call from” and “contact name” information. Alternatively, when an incoming call is received, your softphone may access LDAP and look for a contact match. If a match is found, the contact will be automatically added to the softphone address book, and the contact information will be displayed for subsequent calls made by this caller.
Multi-language support may be essential for a softphone that will be used in a global enterprise or corporate environment. In this case, ensure that the user interface and all other components of your selected product are available in your required languages.
Every call received, dialed or missed should generate a call log activity record that includes details such as the date on which the event took place, the duration of the call and the phone number of the contact who called. In addition, if the softphone supports the click-to-dial feature, then you should be able to click on a specific call history record to place an outbound call to the selected contact.
Multiple SIP Accounts
Having multiple, independent SIP accounts on a softphone allows you to consolidate your various SIP accounts and make/receive calls from a single softphone. Additionally, having multiple registrations allows you to switch between accounts on a per-outbound call basis, depending on which VoIP provider or ISP offers the best rate for your call destination.
Because the softphone is an application that runs on a standard computing device, configuration of audio and video devices is sometimes challenging. Therefore, a product that includes automatic configuration is the best softphone because it minimizes any hardware setup complications.
Headset controls and options
In general, a headset with a built-in microphone is used to provide sound input/output to and from the softphone. The best softphone user-interface must offer full management of your sound devices, including volume control and a mute option. In addition, a speakerphone may be used to allow multiple persons to participate in a conversation, and the softphone should provide a “button” to toggle the speakerphone on or off.
A softphone incorporating a well-designed Troubleshooting Assistant is extremely helpful in diagnosing and solving common problems involving hardware, configuration, and communication performance. Many such Troubleshooting Assistants provide an interactive, step-by-step guide to resolving complex issues, such as call failures, one-way audio, poor call quality and video incompatibilities.
Echo Cancellation and Sound Quality
Echo is an obvious and very annoying problem in telephony systems, including VoIP (Voice over IP) services. Talker echo is the most common type of echo and results in a proportion of the talker’s voice being reflected back to them. The best softphone must incorporate an echo cancellation module (including automatic gain control, voice activity detection and other optional noise-reduction mechanisms) to improve voice quality. It should be noted that the sophistication and effectiveness of echo cancellation technology vary widely between softphone products, and hence the resultant sound quality in complex environments.
Audio and Video Codecs
A codec is a module that encodes or decodes digital data streams and signals, and is therefore critical in defining the compatibility between your selected softphone and other remote devices. As far as audio codecs are concerned, softphones provide a range of these codecs, a typical minimum set being G.711 and G.729. If additional audio codecs are required (such as G.722, SILK or Speex), then a softphone that includes these options must be selected. Similarly (if applicable), your softphone may support a limited range of video codecs and may not include compatibility for technologies such as High Definition (HD) video, which is handled by codecs such as H.264 and VP8.
Security and Privacy
Individuals and organizations are constantly taking precautions so as to ensure the privacy and security of their communications. These security issues are equally applicable to softphones, where incoming and outgoing calls are vulnerable to “man in the middle” attacks, such as wiretapping and eavesdropping. A softphone that supports encryption using Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Secure RTP (SRTP) protocols is the best softphone because it significantly reduces these threats, and provide highly secure communications channels.
Firewall Traversal Solutions
Firewalls are designed to prevent unauthorized people from connecting to your computer and to the applications running on the computer. Therefore, if firewalls are employed (such as in an enterprise environment), then your softphone must include solutions for aiding traffic to traverse these barriers. Typical firewall traversal solutions are STUN, TURN, or ICE, which create “pinholes” in the firewalls and therefore allow VoIP traffic (SIP signaling and media) to pass through.
The trick to choosing the right and best softphone is to carefully consider your personal and company’s requirements. Fortunately, most softphone vendors offer a free trial or demo for prospective clients. You should take full advantage of this opportunity to try out the application, thereby selecting a softphone that includes your required feature set and provides you with maximum benefit and optimum service.