The Tornado M20 Phone and Digital Media Center

Why settle for VoIP when you can pack digital media in the same package?

When I considered evaluating SysMaster's Tornado M20 Media Center, I thought I was simply evaluating a video/voice IP telephone. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it also could handle IPTV, streaming audio, stored graphics, IM, e-mail, RSS news and weather! I thought all it needed was a built-in calculator. Then, I read the Owner's Manual and discovered that it does have a calculator function. Wow! All this inside a box the size of an average speaker phone, and it even has space for 10Mb LAN, 802.1a Wi-Fi and a 3.5 color video screen. For about $250 US, this device seems to be able to do everything my MythTv system can do, but it's much smaller!

Enough hype. Let's talk about practical issues.

As soon as I unboxed the unit, I was immediately struck by how heavy it was. This is not a phone you'll be dragging across your desk every time you lift the handset. When you put this unit on your desk, it's going to stay where you put it, and it's going to look nice sitting there. The M20 is a very clean, professional-looking phone.

Appearances are more important than you might think. I once was involved in a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) evaluation project where we set up a VoIP system and deployed a few phones for potential users. The prevailing comments we received from the users were that they liked the system. They liked the sound quality. They hated the phone. They said it looked too much like a toy. Obviously, we ended up taking another direction.

The M20 is black and silver-tone with clearly labeled buttons. There are no silly icons next to each button to make you guess what the button does. The handset, though perhaps a bit light, is comfortable to use. The color display and pivoting camera on the side of the unit tease functionality beyond mere voice communication.

The SysMaster M20 VoIP phone is actually a digital media center.

The M20 is a four-line VoIP telephone that uses the SIP protocol to make and receive voice and video phone calls. Video conferencing uses the H.264 protocol. For voice calls, the device can use the G.711, G.729 and G.726-32 codecs. For video calls, the unit supports H.263. Streaming media uses MP3 and MPEG-4. The unit's network configuration is done via DHCP, PPPoE or can be done manually. The rest of the configuration is done with a Web interface or a central provisioning mechanism via HTTP. As far as I can tell, there is no closed or proprietary functionality in this unit, which is important to me as a Linux and open-source advocate.

Because there are many voice-only VoIP phones out there, most of which are considerably less expensive, I opted not even to bother testing the voice-only capability and jumped straight to the main event, video. So, I asked one of the technical-support staff members at SysMaster to initiate a video call to me.

When the M20 receives a call, it indicates that it is a video call by displaying a V next to the caller-ID information on the display. If you want to establish a video call, you simply press the VIDEO button on the phone. On the other hand, if you want to establish a voice-only call, you pick up the handset, just like a regular phone, and the video function is disabled. Placing a voice or video call is done similarly.

Before we started our video call, the technician made sure I understood that the quality of the call was limited by the available bandwidth. I was using a residential DSL connection, so that would be the limiting factor. However, when we made the call, I didn't feel limited at all.

I was able to see the technician clearly, and in color—the color was a bit washed out though. Later, I discovered that the video camera was quite tunable, and that the camera's brightness, sensitivity and hue were all adjustable. I suspect his camera was just poorly adjusted. When I was playing with the phone earlier that morning, I was able to use the camera and see myself on the display, in full, vivid color. As scary as that was, it wasn't the phone's fault.

As with any CCD camera with a slow frame rate, objects that are moving quickly tend to blur, but normal speaking and moving looked natural. However, when the technician waved his hand across the field of view to demonstrate the effect, the blurring was apparent. The default frame rate of 3–5 frames per second can be adjusted, but it seemed adequate for normal usage. Adjusting it much higher probably would have exhausted my available bandwidth and caused the call quality to drop sharply.

Even though we had a full video stream between us, the sound quality was still quite usable. The sound quality wasn't quite up to the level of the Polycom 501 I use at home, but in my opinion, nothing is. Even so, it was better than many VoIP phones I've used in the past.

The M20 supports all of the normal call functions, such as call forwarding, call transfer, hold, do-not-disturb, message waiting and voice mail. The phone supports Network Address Translation (NAT) as well as multiple server registrations.

In addition to normal call features, the M20 can function as an alarm clock by sounding the phone ringer at preselected dates and times. But, you can take it further than that. The device also can be configured to call an external phone number at a preselected time.

The device can store up to 80 voice-mail messages locally. The voice-mail system amounts to an internal answering machine, but at least it doesn't require a centralized server. Recorded messages are easy to retrieve via the menu or with a Web browser. The company's literature boasts advanced IVR (Interactive Voice Response) capability, and I think you'll agree I've got enough to write about as it is without getting into that function in any depth.

I'm told that the devices will auto-discover each other on the same network and establish a peer-to-peer telephone PBX configuration. So, it's a pretty well-rounded SIP phone.

After hanging up with the support technician, I decided to watch some TV—IPTV, that is. Accessing the IPTV feature is easy using the on-screen menu. Once activated, the IPTV feature displays a list of available channels. A channel is selected by pressing the up and down buttons on the phone and then by pressing the OK button to begin viewing. The color display is simply stunning! I watched a soccer game on the unit; the field looked green, and the players didn't. Flesh tones were realistic. Motion was smooth without any hint of ghosting. Once in a while, I noticed some video artifacts, but that probably was due to bandwidth limitations or packet loss.

Using the built-in PVR function is much like programming a VCR. You select the date, time and channel, and at the designated time, the system either can switch to that channel and allow you to view the program or record the program for later viewing.

After changing channels to watch Shakira do her thing for a while, I decided to check out the M20's streaming audio feature. Streaming audio works about like you'd expect and sounds as good as most of the small radios people bring to work. But, that's where the three RCA plugs (both audio and video) on the side of the unit come into play. The M20 can be connected to standard AV equipment allowing you to take advantage of the bigger screen and better (amplified) speakers you probably already own. I easily could see using this unit, connected to The Big Amp in the living room, to play streaming music at parties or while we worked around the house. In my experience, Internet radio stations tend to play better music than over-the-air radio stations, so this would be a great thing to have at the home or office.

Any time I see a device with a USB port on it, it piques my interest, and the M20 was no exception. Once I plugged a pendrive in to the port, located on the back of the device, I was able to play any MP3, AVI or MPEG file on the drive as though it were a streaming media source. I was a little dismayed to discover that plugging in a USB keyboard would crash the phone. USB keyboard support might have been nice for some of the messaging features discussed later.

The Owner's Manual indicates that the phone can scan the network for open shares that contain music and video files. I wasn't able to test that feature in time for this article, but you can bet I will soon, and the configuration options indicate that this should be fairly easy to do.

I really like reading news via RSS. Usually, you get a lot of diverse headlines and just enough summary information to let you determine whether the article is interesting enough to read in depth. However, this function on the M20 points out its two biggest weaknesses. First, the font is small and sometimes difficult to read. It is readable, but it takes some time to get used to it. But, the biggest problem comes from the fact that if you see a news headline you want to read more fully, you can't, because the M20 doesn't have a Web browser. Now, I understand that it's asking a lot to embed a Web browser in a telephone, but the newsreader feature just screams for it.

The M20 has a weather function that displays the local weather forecast for the next four days. Having gone through all of the configuration options, I'm not sure how this function works. I suspect that the weather information is pushed to the phone from a central server. Other minor services worth mentioning include a stock tracker, currency converter and, yes, as I noted earlier, a calculator. The M20 also has e-mail, instant messaging and SMS messaging features.

I wasn't able to test the e-mail capability directly, as the unit supports only the POP protocol, and my Courier POP server didn't want to cooperate. However, explaining this feature is fairly easy. Once properly configured, the M20 can be used to check a user's e-mail quickly. The M20 doesn't support sending or replying to e-mail, only reading it. Now, at first, this may not seem like a very useful feature, but imagine rushing into your office on your way to an 8:00am meeting and using your telephone to skim your incoming e-mail quickly to check for any important messages. Now, imagine being able to do this in less time than it takes your PC even to boot up. How I wish the unit supported IMAP, but it would be worthwhile for me to configure a POP server just to use this feature.

Because the M20 lacks a keyboard, the IM function seems like it would be a bit cumbersome. But, as the unit supports ICQ, MSN, AOL and SMS messaging, it's very much worth mentioning. The initial configuration of the IM client is done via a Web browser. Once configured, you can send and receive instant messages on any of the supported networks. Sending a message involves using the phone keyboard to type messages, just like you would to send an SMS message on a cell phone.

So, as you can see, the M20 packs a lot of features in one little footprint. But, how well is it supported? As part of this evaluation, I had intended to contrive a fictional, yet plausible, problem with the unit and call SysMaster's tech-support line. Fortunately for me, the unit arrived misconfigured, and I had a perfect opportunity to visit with one of SysMaster's support technicians.

I already had determined that the SIP password had been misconfigured, but I let the technician guide me through resolving the problem, which he did in a logical progression—all the while exhorting various features of the device that he thought I may not have been aware of. He obviously knew the equipment and the technology. I was relieved not to be talking to someone who was simply reading a script.

As you might imagine with a device as sophisticated as this, configuration is everything. Sadly, very little of this configuration is exposed via the built-in video screen. Almost all of the configuration is done with a Web browser via HTTP. Because the Web-based administration console didn't work with Konqueror, I had to use my second choice, Mozilla Firefox, which worked well. At least I didn't have to resort to some other buggy browser. The administration console wasn't as straightforward as I would have wished. There is a lot of configurability in this device, but in my opinion, it isn't well organized.

So, despite a few quirks here and there, this is an amazing device. The M20 brings video, voice and text communications together in one convenient platform. Wireless, as well as LAN connectivity, plus its adherence to open standards, allows the M20 to be deployed just about anywhere.

______________________

Mike Diehl is a freelance Computer Nerd specializing in Linux administration, programing, and VoIP. Mike lives in Albuquerque, NM. with his wife and 3 sons. He can be reached at mdiehl@diehlnet.com

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