Small Business Phone System Review: Ooma Office

by Joseph Moran

This hybrid cloud/on-premises business phone system offers small offices power and simplicity at a reasonable price, but expansion is limited.

Of the myriad technology matters a young small business must contend with when establishing a new office—computers, Internet access, hosted services such as email and a website, etc.—setting up an office phone system can be especially complicated and costly.

Ooma, whose Telo product gives households a simple and inexpensive VoIP alternative to traditional landline service aims to change that. The company's new Ooma Office phone system promises the Telo's simplicity and low cost but with business-oriented phone features such as a multiple extensions and phone lines, an automated receptionist, voice mail, conference bridging, and the capability to route calls to workers in the office or on the road. 

We found the Ooma Office both easy to set up and to maintain. It also offers good performance and lots of useful features for a relatively low upfront cost and reasonable ongoing service fees. On the other hand, due to a limit on the number of physical extensions the phone system supports, a business that adds employees quickly could outgrow Ooma Office sooner than it might expect to.

The Ooma Office Hardware

The $250 Ooma Office kit includes a base unit that supports three physical phone extensions out of the box. But you won't find any actual phones in that box, because Ooma Office doesn't use special VoIP phones. Instead, it works with ordinary corded phones of the type you'd find on sale at any office supply store. (We used a couple of $30 AT&T desktop phones we picked up at Staples.)

Ooma Office small business phone system

Figure 1: The Ooma Office base station has a smaller footprint than most of the phones that will connect to it.

The kit also includes a pair of included "Linx" devices, which plug into AC outlets and convert them into standard phone jacks so your phones can wirelessly connect to the base station. (As of this writing, Costco sells the Ooma Office with three Linx devices rather than two for $250.) You can plug an additional phone directly into a jack on the back of the base station.

Although the Linx devices would imply powerline networking, they're actually wireless transmitters that use the same DECT technology used in virtually all of today's cordless phones. You can also use a Linx device to host an old-timey analog fax machine.

The Ooma Office supports four Linx devices in total­—additional devices cost $50 each—which allow for a maximum of five physical extensions. Although the Ooma Office supports many more "virtual" extensions (more on those in a bit), being limited to only five in-office phones may be a bit of a low ceiling for many businesses, even if they're small. Ooma says it's looking into supporting more than five extensions by allowing multiple base stations in the same office.

Also, the Ooma Office doesn't currently support cordless phones, though the company reports it will work with the $60 cordless HD2 handset from the Ooma Telo. 

Getting Started with Ooma Office

The first step to getting the Ooma Office up and running (before you even plug the base unit in) is to establish your account and activate the base unit online at Ooma's website. It prompted us to create a password and security question as well as to enter basic company information, including the physical address for E911 purposes.

Next you need to establish "phone lines" (not really actual phone lines, of course—more like call paths in some distant router), the number of which you choose determines how many incoming or outgoing calls your Ooma Office can handle simultaneously. Each line includes unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada and costs $20 per month plus telecom taxes and regulatory fees, so it's really closer to $25 per line. (International calls are priced per minute and funded out of a prepaid account.)

The Ooma Office supports up to 10 lines, but we opted for two lines and also chose two local phone numbers to go with them. You choose your numbers from a list of available numbers in your own area code, but you can also choose numbers from different area codes if you'd prefer. If you have existing phone numbers, Ooma will transfer them for free, though you'll still need the local numbers for a while as the transfer process can take several days or more.

After specifying what we wanted our Caller ID to display, we were pretty much done and ready to turn our attention setting up the base station and phones.

Ooma Base station and Phone Setup

Ooma recommends connecting the base unit between your broadband modem and router so that the device can perform QoS and maximize call quality, but it also supports simply plugging it into your router as you would any other networked device such as a PC or printer. We opted for the latter approach and didn't experience any problems, but in this scenario call quality will depend on the speed of your Internet connection (ours is 25 Mbps upstream/4 Mbps downstream) and how busy it is.

We plugged one of our phones into the base station's phone jack, connected the base station to the network, and plugged it into AC, and within less than five minutes the base station status light was glowing solid blue indicating a successful connection to the Internet. When we called our number we were greeted by the dulcet tones of the Ooma Office's virtual receptionist, and dialing extension 101 from there promptly rang the phone plugged into the base station.

Setting up an additional phone requires only slightly more effort. We logged into myoffice.ooma.com to create a new extension with a few clicks, entered a six-digit code from the back of one of the Linx devices, plugged the Linx into the wall, and then pressed and held a button on the back of the base station in order to pair the two devices. Within about a minute, the Linx device status light was glowing solid blue and the phone we plugged into it had a dial tone.

Ooma Administration and Call Routing

In addition to the aforementioned five physical extensions, the Ooma Office small business phone system also supports 15 virtual extensions that don't ring any phone but rather go directly to voice mail (and you can check them remotely by dialing in). Virtual extensions can also forward incoming calls through to a mobile phone, or to any other number for that matter.

Calls to physical extensions can also be automatically forwarded to other numbers while simultaneously ringing at the user's desk. For these call forwarding scenarios, the Ooma Office provides a "require key press on answer" option, which ensures that if a call hits voice mail at the forwarded number, the caller is routed back to the Ooma Office to leave a message. This ensures that work-related messages remain within the company phone system.

You can customize almost every customer-facing aspect of the Ooma Office. You can modify the greeting spoken by the synthesized voice of the virtual attendant and have different greetings spoken depending on whether or not a call comes in during business hours. If you don't like the synthesized voice (it's actually quite agreeable), you can record your own greeting, though you must do so by uploading an audio file in MP3 or WAV format.

Unfortunately you can't record a virtual attendant greeting into a phone as users can do for their own extensions. The Ooma supports custom audio for calls on hold and for call transfers—again by uploading either a WAV or MP3 file.

Ooma Office small business phone system

Figure 2: The two included Linx devices (Ooma supports up to four) let you add extensions without any wiring. 

The Ooma Office also provides a high degree of control over how soon an incoming call will go to voice mail—you can choose anything from 10 seconds (after one ring) to 180 seconds (after 30 rings), and do so in 1-second increments and on a per-extension basis. You can send voice mails to the user as MP3 email attachments, though there's no way to send a voice mail message to a different user or to multiple users.  You can minimize the odds of a customer having to deal with voice mail by setting up ring groups, which allow incoming calls to ring multiple extensions or forwarded numbers at the same time.  

It's also important to note that although the Ooma Office is a device that lives on your office network, you don't have to be in the office to make configuration changes via the Ooma Web portal. Unfortunately there's only one administrator account, so you can't delegate certain non-critical functions—e.g. control over whether/where to forward an extension or how quickly voice mail answers—to an office manager or to the employees themselves.  

Potential User Learning Curve

One other caveat: because the Ooma Office uses off-the-shelf phones rather than a system-specific model, you don't get dedicated buttons for functions such as call hold, transfer, and voice mail access. You can still do all these things with the Ooma Office of course, but they must be done by methods that may not necessarily be obvious to phone users, and this may represent a bit of a learning curve.

For example, you dial your own extension number to access voice mail, press Flash to put a call on hold, and transfer calls using one of several asterisk-plus-digit combos depending on the method of transfer (direct, announced, or straight to voice mail). You can look up how to use various functions on Ooma's website, but including a cheat sheet (perhaps a printable PDF) would have been welcome. 

The Bottom Line

How does the Ooma Office compare price-wise with alternatives? An Ooma Office setup with five physical extensions and five phone lines would set you back around $600 upfront (assuming $250 to start, $100 for two extra Linx devices, and $50 per phone) and cost $100 a month for service (not including taxes).

That compares favorably with, say, purely cloud-based RingCentral, which doesn't require an on-site base station but charges $100 or more for each VoIP phone and $150 for the same five lines (or $125 if you're willing to sign an annual contract). The Ooma Office would also cost far less than the equivalent business-class VoIP phone service from a local cable provider, which typically costs north of $60 per line, requires lengthy contracts, and assesses hefty installation and activation fees up front.  

Of course, these services offer somewhat more sophistication and expansion potential than the Ooma Office. Still, if you're looking for simple, powerful, and inexpensive business phone service for a small office and can live with five physical extensions, the Ooma Office is a good option to consider.

Price: $250 for base unit kit (phones and service extra)

Pros: easy setup and administration; requires no wiring or specific phones; low initial and ongoing cost with no contract commitment

Cons: currently limited to five physical extensions

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Jul 30th 2013
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