Business Communications: A Review of Virtual Office Pro

by Gerry Blackwell

Virtual Office Pro from 8x8 isn’t perfect, but if you're looking for an affordable way to add unified communications capabilities to your business communications system, it does the job.

Hosted IP-based PBX service provider 8x8 has taken the next logical step in cloud-based communications, adding unified communications (UC) capabilities to its online PBX service.

The Virtual Office Pro business phone service, launched earlier this year, bundles Internet fax, presence, instant messaging, online meetings and call recording with existing PBX features such as automated attendant, voice mail and find-me-follow-me call routing.

The new Pro edition can be used with an IP phone set or broadband phone adapter and regular phone (both of which 8x8 sells). However, it also works with the company's new integrated browser-based softphone and management utility, Virtual Office Online.

And unlike with some hosted PBX services, Virtual Office Pro subscribers can switch back and forth between using their PC or physical phone set to make and take calls.

Virtual Office Online saves companies the hassle of downloading and installing a softphone program on each computer. The browser-based application not only lets employees make and take calls on their PCs wherever they are, but also adjust settings, collect email, route calls and use the unified communications features, all from a single interface.

Bargain Pricing

An Unlimited Extension Pro plan, which includes unlimited calling to Canada, the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, costs $49.99 a month, with a one-time activation fee of $39.99.

An Unlimited Extension plan with similar bundled calling but without the unified communications features included in the Pro option costs $29.99 a month.

For small businesses looking for a way to painlessly and economically add a unified communications capability, if only to try it out, Virtual Office Pro is an excellent deal.

But in our testing, call quality using Virtual Office Online -- we did not test the service with an IP phone set for this review -- was not consistently good and the browser interface, evidently a work in progress, was at times frustrating.

We reviewed the 8x8 Virtual Office business phone service last year, using an IP phone set provided by 8x8. For this review, we focused on the Pro features and Virtual Office Online interface.

Easy Setup

Setting up and using Virtual Office Pro with the online interface is fairly simple. When subscribers sign up, they receive an email with a user ID and password, which they use to log in at the 8x8 Web page. The subscriber's Virtual Office Online home page gives easy access to most features.

 Virtual Office Pro; unified communications
The dial pad and settings menus in 8x8 Virtual Office Online.
(Click for larger image)

A panel on the left shows buttons for placing a call (there are other ways to do this as well), send a fax, set up a meeting, adjust settings and view My Inbox (which displays messages, calls, scheduled meetings, call recordings, etc.) Clicking any of these buttons launches a second window in the middle of the screen with options for that activity.

Below the main function buttons sits a stack of tabs for accessing different listings of contacts and scheduled meetings: Recent Contacts, My Contacts (personal contacts added by this employee), Corporate Directory (listing of other employees with their 8x8 extensions and numbers) and My Meetings.

It's also possible to display contacts from a Microsoft Exchange directory in the 8x8 interface by inputting the user's email address and Outlook password in Settings. Since 8x8 mainly targets very small businesses with the Virtual Office service, it's not clear how much value this feature will have.

Outlook: Poor

One of the frustrations with the online interface is that it is not possible, at least for now, to import contacts from a Microsoft Office Outlook database stored on the subscriber's computer, which would be of great value to many people. Nor is it possible to import Outlook contacts from a comma- or tab-delimited text file.

An 8x8 technical support agent said that the capability to import Outlook contacts is a feature that will likely be added in future. Popular softphone programs used with other hosted PBX services -- such as those from CounterPath -- already have this feature. In the meantime, Virtual Office subscribers who do not have Exchange must add their contacts manually using an online form.

Presence information -- the status of other employees on the PBX -- displays small icons beside employees' names in the corporate directory (Available, Do Not Disturb, Busy, Invisible).

Clicking on a person's name in any of the contact lists brings up a window with tabs that let the subscriber send a fax, initiate a chat session or view a history record showing past calls, chats and messages to and from that person.

Easy Online Meetings

Setting up a Web conference was impressively simple, although it did involve downloading a piece of software to enable content sharing among participants. This somewhat undermines the advantage of a no-download browser-based application.

Still, this may be the best feature of Virtual Office Pro. It also supports video conferencing, although we did not test video for this article.

The meeting organizer fills in a form in Virtual Office Online, selecting or keying in time, time zone, meeting title and names of participants.

It's supposedly possible to drag and drop a contact from the main contact list to the meeting participants list in the set-up window, but we could not make this feature work. (Keying in the first few letters of a person's name, however, lets you add them quickly to the participants list.)

Each participant receives an email with time and dial-in number for the meeting. Participants have to say their name, which is then announced to other participants when the person joins.

When the meeting starts, or before, the organizer can click the Open Content Sharing button. The first time it's used, this begins the process of downloading and installing the content sharing application. It took less than 90 seconds over a fast Internet connection on our two-year old quad-core PC.

Once the application has been downloaded, the button launches a tabbed window within the Virtual Office Online window showing the meeting interface. The organizer chooses whether to share just one application window -- selecting it from a gallery of thumbnails -- or their entire Windows screen. The application or screen image then appears in the main meeting window.

Buttons to the left of the main window let you access a chat window for sending instant text messages to other participants. It's possible to set up private sidebar conversations while the main meeting progresses using the voice/video connection.

Quick Internet Faxing

Sending a fax is even simpler. Simply click the button from the home screen to launch the fax window, fill in the fax phone number, recipient name, subject and notes and add an attachment (a document from your hard drive) by clicking the Add Attachment button.

While the interface generally works well, we were frustrated that some functions do not work properly in Google's Chrome browser -- despite one 8x8 technical support agent telling us that problems with Chrome had not been reported before.

For example, when we went through the process to manually add contacts with Virtual Office Online in Chrome, the system said they were added, but no new contacts appeared in the My Contacts list. Some tabs also disappeared temporarily from the left-hand panel of the home page after re-logging in.

Poor Chrome Support

When we switched over to using Internet Explorer emulation in Chrome, the contacts added earlier still did not appear, but new contacts added did.

Call recording also worked imperfectly, with Virtual Office Online (in Internet Explorer) in some cases reporting that it could not start a recording at the beginning of a call. Call recordings listed in the Media list of My Inbox also did not play in some cases. Both these problems were intermittent.

Call quality was the most troubling problem noted. We placed a limited number of test calls using Virtual Office Online. The very first call, to 8x8 technical support, was so bad -- with the party at the other end reporting severe break-up -- that it could not support a normal conversation.

Other calls exhibited some latency or delay in voices reaching each other -- which results in slightly stilted conversations -- as well as packet jitter, which causes voices to break up, and occasional low volume levels.

In the earlier review of 8x8 Virtual Office using IP desk sets, which used the same computer and Internet set-up, call and voice quality were generally above average, suggesting the problem in this case is with the softphone.

Bottom Line

Despite questionable call quality when using the softphone, and despite the noted problems with the online interface and the lack of an Outlook database import function, we think Virtual Office Pro is a good deal. It's worth considering by small businesses looking for a way to quickly and easily add unified communications.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Aug 11th 2010
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