Ubiquiti UniFi UVP Review

Ubiquiti UniFi UVP Review

UVP Box

This review is due to be amended

I have just discovered the DHCP Option 66 Provisioning System here (thanks Brandon), and will update this review with this information soon once I have tried it out

What is that?

This is the UVP, the basic model of the first generation of IP phones from Ubiquiti Networks.

It’s big brother is the UVP-PRO that looks exactly the same but also includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a front camera. The top-of-the-range model is the UVP-EXECUTIVE which is the same as the PRO bar a giant 7" landscape display and stereo speakers.

Ubiquiti?

Formed in 2005, Ubiquiti are Wi-Fi specialists from the USA. They are famous for their super long range WiFi equipment, good quality hardware and value pricing. In the past few years they have released some products which have shaken up the commercial Wi-Fi sector with some indoor products and a Java based management controller that can be installed ‘in the cloud’. In the past one or two years their growth in the UK has been rapid, and here at Efficient Telecom we have lots of hands on experience with nearly all of Ubiquiti’s range of products.

Anyway, back to this phone…

Build Quality

This phone feels exceptionally well put together. The stand is made from metal and has a solid weight to it that is a little unexpected. It all comes out of the box as one unit, there is nothing to assemble as the handset has a captive cord on both ends. The handset itself has a nice soft touch rubber coating and feels quite comfortable. Like the new Snom handsets the hook switch is magnetic so no moving parts. Below the Ubiquiti logo and above the speaker grill there is a notification LED which is invisible until it glows white through the body of the phone which is a nice touch. It is a good design, sitting on the desk it has an impressive sleek, high tech look that makes traditional handsets look very dated with all those buttons.

Ergonomics

Talking about buttons, this phone only has one. Yes, just one and it is the mute button in the middle of the handset.

Mute Button

A great feature to have the mute button there, and I’m sure this is the reason for not being able to detach the handset cord. Is it worth the trade off? Not in my opinion. Sure, it is handy, but the ability to swap a cable or handset a few years down the line when things start to go wrong is even more handy. I can barely believe they skipped the volume button on this phone! As lovely as this phone looks on your desk, it is plain to see that ergonomics have not been a priority in the design when you first go to grab the handset and bash your knuckles into the screen. This phone requires you to always pick up the handset with your left hand.

Everything bar the mute button is on the screen, and operating this works fine for very short periods. When it comes to any extended use such as input with the keyboard it can be a pain in the wrist so don’t get any ideas that you are going to write your emails on this. I am interested to try out the UVP-EXECUTIVE one day and see if the 7" display makes the phone more usable for all the space on the desk that it would to take up.

Android

Powered by Android

Kit Kat

This phone runs Android 4.4.2 ‘KitKat’ and it is very close to ‘AOSP’ which is the term for stock Android. Mine says that it is ‘UVP version 4.6.5.413’ which I think is the equivalent of the build number. In fact, I’m pretty sure that aside from some minor configuration of Android the only thing that makes the UVP a ‘UniFi Phone’ is the addition of two packages, ‘SipService.apk’ and ‘UnifiPhone.apk’. Just to play around, I thought I would try to load App version 4.6.5.360 on my One Plus One mobile phone just for fun.

Strange

It does load up, but it does not work. It can place and receive calls, but with no audio since it is probably tied to the handset hardware in some way. I don’t know where I am going with this to be honest…

There have been many other attempts at bringing Android to the desk. The Siemens Gigaset SL930A, Maxwell 10, Grandstream GXV3275, GXP2200, Cisco DX650 and many more. Whether or not this is a good idea, it is one that is here to stay and I fully expect a sea of Android desk phones to appear from every manufacturer over the next few years. There are some great advantages of the platform to be on your desk phone. It does feel like another screen to work from; one swipe and you can see your calendar, your To Do list is one click away, a few button presses take you to your contacts automatically synchronized from your CRM package. Incoming calls can pick up useful Caller ID without complicated database work, it is a good experience for users to have the same interface on their desk as they are used to in their pocket. Even small things such as displaying news on the screen while idle, or always having a calculator at hand when you need to crunch a few numbers quickly is quite compelling.

Apps

'Appy?

One feature touted on every bit of marketing you read about the UVP is the fact that it has ‘Access to the Google Play Store’. Sounds great, the ability to easily install any Android app easily but the reality is that it is quite a bit more restricted than that. The problem is that app developers set up their listing in the Play Store to say that they require certain device functionality, or even in some cases specify exactly which models of phone their app is compatible with. As you can imagine, this doesn’t work well for an unconventional Android device such as the UVP. The message ‘Your device isn’t compatible with this version’ is something you quickly get used to seeing. Sometimes the Play Store will tell you this when you try to find the download button, and sometimes the app you want won’t even appear in the search results. There are a lot of useful things you can install such as: Dropbox, LinkedIn, Outlook, Skype, Remember the Milk, Wunderlist, Twitter BBC News and Any.do Cal. You want Sunrise Calendar, Any.do Tasks, Microsoft Office, Instagram, Spotify, Yahoo Weather or BBC iPlayer? Sorry, all of those are not available through the Play Store.

There is the option of ‘Side Loading’, which means installing an application file without using the Play Store. This is a security risk as your file would not be vetted for malware, and it feels as if you have to reach out into the darkest corners of the Internet to find the .apk file you are looking for. But, it is an option on the UVP and here I am listening to Spotify while I work.

Bill Withers

Apps are useful, but they have to be considered in a business environment. Your Sync’d Contacts, CRM package, Email and other apps contain business critical information and they should be managed in some way. Enforced lock screen security, protection against a phone being stolen, these are genuine issues and I thought that you would be able to solve them by using Google Apps for Work and enforcing these policies using the Device Policy app.

Device Policy

Oh, I guess not then. This item is not compatible with your device.

Hardware

Inside the UVP the beating heart is a Broadcom BCM28155 SoC, so it is a Dual Core Cortex-A9 (ARMv7). Mine is hardware v5 and reports that it is clocked at 1GHz although the spec sheet says that it should be 1.2GHz. It has 1GB RAM and 2GB of storage although again the spec sheet says 4GB. I’m feeling a bit short changed here! The screen on this phone is a 5" 640×960 capacitive multi-touch display. It has two gigabit ethernet sockets on the back, and is powered by 48V 802.3af PoE on one of these. There is a 3.5mm stereo headset (with mic) jack and some headsets with buttons can answer calls and hangup too. There is a Micro USB socket which can be used to transfer some files using MTP as well as debug with ADB but not much else really. There is no USB OTG support. The speaker on the UVP is surprisingly good, miles better than what you would find on your average laptop and pleasant for a little Internet Radio once in a while.

Speed

This phone is not a fancy high end smartphone. It gets a Quadrant score of 2680 which is a rating that is on par with the 2011 Samsung Galaxy Nexus. To put that into perspective, a HTC One X mobile phone from 2012 and a £69 Motorola Moto E both achieve a score of around 4500. Using Geekbench 3, the UVP achieved a score of 274 (single core) and 515 (multi core). Is it fast enough though? Yes, absolutely it is. It is a very slow device using the Chrome web browser or YouTube, and I think these may be graphics issues which could be solved with improved drivers. But actually doing things that you would normally do on this phone such as scrolling through contacts, using Skype, making calls, it all works well and is good enough for what the device is for. The speed of the UVP is well judged, it honestly feels like if it was ten times faster there would be no real tangible advantage.

VoIP Features

At Efficient Telecom we have experience with Snom, Yealink, Cisco, Siemens Gigaset and Polycom handsets. These are mature industry-standard devices that are flexible and have a sea of configuration options. Sometimes the documentation is like reading a technical War & Peace, and when you look into some of the options available you realise how powerful these systems can be. For example, some handsets can display a menu on the screen based on an XML file retrieved by HTTP. Some can make custom HTTP requests when you press a programmable button on the phone. Other phones have complex but amazing options for Hot Desking. On some handsets you can configure what happens when you transfer a caller and hang up, what menus are displayed, what buttons do, and so on without even touching on audio options, tones and codecs or networking, VLANs and VPNs. How does the UVP compare?

Ready

It doesn’t really compare. You can enter some SIP details and then make and receive calls. There is voicemail notification and the ability to transfer and blind transfer a call. Any other feature which people may be used to such as BLF (shortcut keys that light up when your colleague is on the phone), simple 3 way conferencing, call forwarding or even shortcuts for your internal extensions simply doesn’t exist.

It really does only offer basic phone functions. I’m sure some people will argue that "these features are coming!", it is still early days for the software and it is still under development. However you should never buy a product on what it may be able to do in the future, it should always be about what it can do now

Provisioning

This section is absolutely crucial for any serious enterprise deployment. When a system is set up correctly it should be possible for a phone to discover the provisioning server through a DHCP Option where it will be able to securely (TLS signed certificate) receive full configuration information including any firmware upgrades. It is not always simple to set this up without practise, but it is not to be underestimated how important it is for a phone to be able to be plugged in and work. Every major brand has a comprehensive XML over HTTPS provisioning system, and it gives you the power to use scripts and databases to set up your phones with as much integration into your business systems as you need.

The UniFi UVP is different. Ubiquiti have a ‘controller’ which is a Java application which can allow you to manage UniFi devices over a L3 network. The Java app can be installed on a local machine or a server hosted on the Internet, and is commonly deployed on Amazon Web Services. The controller can have multiple sites with many multiple devices talking to it, and it is something that works quite well actually. Our Efficient Telecom controller runs on AWS and has been managing various Wi-Fi networks for a few years now and is quite excellent. Ubiquiti have ‘tacked on’ phone management to this controller system for wireless networking. How well does this work?

Straight out of the box, I plugged the UVP into my PoE Switch. I have the DNS name ‘unifi’ mapped to the IP address of my existing controller (version 4.6.3) where it appeared as a new device. So far so good.

UniFi Controller 4.6.3

The UniFi Controller drops you into this over simplified network diagram design. I don’t have the USG router or a UniFi Switch or anything like that so I don’t really understand why the software feels the need to have completely redundant Network options in Settings. The big grey circles on the network map are also pointless.

The shipping firmware version does have some major bugs, the main one being extremely poor outgoing audio quality using the handset. The latest firmware 4.6.5.413 and app version 4.6.5.360 does fix this issue for me, but getting that installed is not as easy as it should be. Clicking on the ‘upgrade’ button in the controller resulted in a failure message on the handset. To fix this, the updated .apk files had to be manually installed on the handset, and then the upgrade procedure initiated again from the controller. This time it is successful and the phone seems to work, but the controller perpetually says that the phone is offline. The only way I found of fixing this issue was to factory reset! This entire procedure is simply unacceptable really and the first impression is of bugs, workarounds and complications. In a serious production environment there has to be a trust that a new phone can be deployed and its firmware and software remotely updated successfully without any hassle.

This phone is to be used on my Asterisk server which is on a network local to the phone, so let’s see how easy it is to set that up. The controller user interface is pretty basic. Under ‘Settings’ there is one section where you can assign a SIP Server, and then there is another section where you can assign Extensions with simple Username / Password / Voicemail settings and which phone this extension is assigned to. Really quite simple, and for a significant proportion of ‘Hosted PBX’ users (such as Soho66 for example) this is often enough. The controller will always set the SIP authentication name to be the same as the ‘Display Name’, which sometimes is not what you want, and sometimes is required to be omitted by your SIP provider. Don’t expect to be able to set your SIP Session Timer, Retry Interval, RTP Port Settings, Networking or anything else from here.

How about from the phone itself? Actually you can manually set up this handset without using the controller (but you cannot upgrade the software / firmware without the controller). In the ‘Settings’ button of the phone application you can view the SIP details that the controller has sent to the phone, modify them, remove them, add new accounts and select and deselect codecs. This is a great feature, unless of course you want to avoid your users messing around with this and stopping the phone from working correctly. There is no way of password protecting the settings from the controller or hiding them altogether.

Some modern phones have outstanding debug facilities, and they can allow you to grab SIP Debug traces or even Wireshark traces directly from the phone itself. When there are issues with VoIP, these tools are invaluable for solving the problem quickly. Unfortunately, the UVP is not quite so helpful and if there were any issues with the functions of this phone I would only really be able to debug the connection from Asterisk, and if I was using a Hosted PBX service this may not be possible.

Conclusion

Flapping Marvelous

The UniFi phone is not for everyone. If you have a medium to large deployment the lack of provisioning options and limited ability to set up a new phone without touching it is somewhat limiting. Sure, if you do have an IT department it may be possible to put a new phone in a test environment to set it up. But really, this is not what you want if you are going to install 150 phones when it really should be much easier. Then there is the lack of traditional features that are common with other phones and lack of custom settings to support lots of different possible network configurations.

But it is not all doom for this phone. I have been using it for the past few days and I really do enjoy having it on my desk. The convenience of an Android phone just can’t be underestimated, having your contacts just appear on the phone for easy access and automatically synchronised. Having Skype and other apps available to use, and the non-telephony apps as well such as a nice calendar at your fingertips. Plus, it looks great! It works as a basic phone, the sound quality is good and it is really useful. If you have a small deployment with basic light phone needs and understand that there are some limitations of the platform, the UVP is definitely a phone to consider.

The Good

  • Looks nice on the desk
  • Great sound quality
  • The convenience of Android apps at your desk is not to be underestimated
  • Synchronised Contacts
  • Easy to use
The Bad

  • Covered in fingerprints
  • Messing around with sideloading to get the software upgraded
  • "This app is not compatible with your device"
  • Captive handset cord
  • Limited provisioning and debug options
  • Immature system with limited features feels very ‘beta’