Review: Altigen iFusion SmartStation AP300 Handset + Speakerphone for iPhone
As the world is in the midst of transitioning from traditional land-based telephone lines to largely wireless communication devices, there's a very real need for interim solutions -- products to help users move from old phone systems to new ones. Altigen's iFusion SmartStation ($180, aka AP300) is one of those helper products, a glossy white and gray desktop telephone that lets home or business users enjoy the comforts of a traditional desktop phone while leveraging the wireless capabilities of an iPhone 3G, 3GS, or 4. iFusion includes the handset, a loud speakerphone, and a place to optionally charge your iPhone; the iPhone is responsible for the cellular voice service and the dialing mechanism. And while we really liked what most of iFusion does, the charging and dialing features could have used just a little additional work.
One thing that Altigen really got right with iFusion was the industrial design, which errs on the side of familiarity and comfort rather than trying to replace everything with postmodern shapes. From the front, the unit looks like a white rounded rectangular box with nice bevels and obvious buttons; the handset is wonderfully curved to feel substantial and soft in the hand. From the side, iFusion is obviously tapered, using matte gray plastic and a substantial metal stand that holds the handset and speaker upright, creating a roughly 6” deep and nearly 8.5” tall structure that’s rubber padded for general stability. A small compartment on the back manages audio, mini-USB, power, and phone cables without making all of the wires flow all over the place; it’s no small compliment to say that everything looks nice and feels very professionally designed. This is a much smarter, nicer design than Kee Utility’s Desk Phone Dock, which we reviewed some months ago.
While we’ve seen a lot of iFusion’s functionality in earlier Bluetooth and non-Bluetooth speakerphone accessories, none has brought everything together as comfortably as Altigen has here; it’s worth noting that you’re not required to connect your iPhone to this unit via any sort of physical connection. Inside iFusion is a Bluetooth 2.1 chipset for both monaural telephone and stereo audio streaming, both handled through two speakers—one is in the handset, and the other is immediately behind the handset in an attractive-looking dot grille on the 8.8” wide by 7.8” tall matching base. While only one speaker operates at a time, and iFusion’s base speaker won’t activate unless the handset (or something else) is holding down a button in the phone cradle, each monaural speaker’s peak volume level is very loud: the handset speaker is louder than the ear speaker in any iPhone, and the speakerphone is much louder and clearer than the one built into the iPhone 4’s bottom. Microphone performance is a hint superior on the iFusion’s handset than on the iPhone 4’s, but a little less clear on the iFusion’s speakerphone side than on the iPhone 4’s.
Handset aside, the major difference between iFusion and, say, Uniden’s BTS200 is the presence of a large charging dock over to the right side of the unit. On a positive note, this dock is nicely located, and sits right above a panel of five illuminated buttons: Bluetooth pairing, muting, speakerphone on/off, volume down, and volume up. By placing the dock so close to the handset, Altigen makes it easy to dial a number by just turning on the docked iPhone’s screen or using Voice Control on recent models—assuming the iPhone’s sitting on the dock.
But if the iPhone’s not on the dock—and it may well not be if you’re using a case, since the dock hasn’t been designed to accommodate most cases—dialing may be a pain. For whatever reason, Altigen doesn’t include a button to remotely activate the iPhone’s Voice Control features, which most rival phone and speakerphone products do include, thereby enabling you to just speak a name or number and start talking. Altigen also doesn’t include a power button for iFusion, so the unit stays turned on, awaiting pairing, as it uses up wall power with an included power adapter.
Contrast iFusion’s approach with the aforementioned Uniden unit, which offers nice speakerphone, integrated battery pack, and USB charging port features at a lower price point. BTS200 does a better job with stereo music streaming thanks to its dual speakers, too, though you have to self-supply the iPhone charging cable, and don’t get a handset—just the speakerphone and charging functionality.
In other words, what Altigen is trying to do with iFusion is different. Though it includes streaming support and works well as a speakerphone, it’s really trying to replicate the classic desktop telephone, and in most ways, it succeeds: both for radiation and sonic reasons, we legitimately preferred using the handset to holding an iPhone up to our ears, and the speakerphone’s volume and ease of use are also both definite selling points for those looking for a louder telephone calling option. With a very modest change to the dock—a taller and thus more case-compatible Dock Connector—and a built-in Voice Control-activating button for easily making calls without an iPhone immediately nearby, this new phone would live up to its full potential as a transitional solution for fans of desktop phones. As-is, though it’s a little bit more expensive than it should be, it’s good enough to earn our general recommendation, and worthy of consideration if you’re willing to adopt its implied usage model.