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Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020
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8×8 Virtual Office Pro

The 8×8 Virtual Office Pro business-class Voice over IP (VoIP) system has undergone a lot of growth in the past year. While the company still delivers an excellent small to midsized business (SMB) solution, which is what we’re reviewing here, the company has also introduced new capabilities targeting mid-sized businesses, enterprises, call centers, and even a new X Series cloud appliance that combines several of these capabilities into an “employee engagement” offering. With additional capabilities available in the areas of web video conferencing, collaboration, and faxing, even existing 8×8 customers should take a closer look at the company’s portfolio as they may be sitting on features they don’t even know they have. All in all, 8×8 delivers an excellent all-around solution well deserving of our Editors’ Choice award along with Fonality Hosted PBX.

Setup and Configuration

Configuring Virtual Office Pro was very simple. Upon signing up with the service, 8×8 shipped us two Polycom WX 600 VoIP handsets (meaning, standard desk phones). These aren’t required to use the service; you can simply use Virtual Office’s software-only phone through your PC or mobile device (more on that later), but SMBs typically want a handset on each employee’s desk so we decided to test this capability.

Upon receiving the handsets, 8×8 also sent us an introduction email, which it sends to all new customers, that provided us with login information and basic setup documentation for the service and our handsets. The email also asked us to schedule a 30-minute to 1-hour introductory phone call with a technical service rep to walk us through the system and to answer any initial questions.

It’s important to note, however, that this call isn’t meant to help you set up the service and the phones; it’s just an introduction to what all the capabilities and features are, how to use and configure them, and to answer questions on how to use them. If you run into any issues when initially setting up your service, then 8×8 has separate technical staffers to help with that as well as a well-stocked customer support knowledgebase.

In testing, setup was quick and relatively painless. The phones came preconfigured to connect to the service as soon as they had an available internet connection, though you’ll need to be logged into your Account Manager portal to get them fully working. The portal will provide you with an activation code you’ll need to enter on the handset to get the phone functioning and fully hooked into your account.

Once your handsets are active, you can manage all features through the Account Management portal. From here, we assigned specific phone numbers and extensions to each handset, attached users to those phone numbers, and managed advanced features like the auto-attendant, ring groups, and call recording options, among numerous others. Each user receives both an extension and a dedicated phone number. Once they have that, they can access that line from the handset at their desk (if you opted for that) or via the 8×8 Virtual Office desktop application, the web browser client (the one we used), or via a mobile app that supports both iOS and Android. Any of these methods lets users make and receive calls, check voicemail, or conduct online meetings using web conferencing options that include support for chat, shared screen, and video conferencing.

Configuring the auto-attendant also happens by using the Account Management portal. You’ve got a rich set of options here that includes standard greetings baked into the service that you can access with a simple mouse click. But you’ve also got the option of uploading your own greetings, or for those who want a full-service experience, you can use 8×8’s audio production services to record your custom greetings for you and upload them into the system.

Getting through these two steps is enough to get the system up and running at a minimal level. However, there are numerous advanced options as well, and many of them are bundled with Virtual Office Pro. You can add virtual and toll-free numbers at any time through the portal, though this will cost extra. You can also manage parking extensions, voicemail-to-email, fax-to-email, call forwarding, and paging. You can even manage your hold music by using a surprisingly wide selection of native music or by uploading your own.

8×8 does support call queuing options, though only as an optional add on similar to other SMB-oriented vendors, including Fonality. 8×8 also charges extra for call monitoring features, which we found included with ShoreTel, though at their Advanced tier. Still, overall, this is a very rich set of calling options for a competitive price.

Performance During Testing

As stated, our testing was relatively painless. We had initial problems when configuring the Polycom handsets but that turned out to be a combination of complications on our device-heavy PCMag Labs test network and user errors. When we moved the handsets to a simpler network that was more indicative of a typical SMB LAN, everything worked smoothly.

Our test network consisted of a FortiWifi 40c router/firewall hooked to a Gigabit LAN on the user side and an AT&T high-speed connection on the internet side, running at roughly 45 Mbps down and 6 Mbps up. Connecting to 8×8 was plug-and-play on this network, with no need to manage any firewall or router settings.

Each Polycom handset has an activation shortcut button displayed on its touchscreen that kicks off the activation process on the Account Management portal. During testing, we found call quality to be generally clear, though we did get some sound breakup with certain sounds, notably any pronounced S’s. Calls conducted internally (behind the firewall) were flawless, and calls going from inside to external targets were also clear, and that’s typically where you’ll see call degradation on some smaller service providers, such as Citrix Grasshopper.

During our failed effort in PCMag Labs, we had the chance to visit 8×8’s customer service website and found a lot of attention paid to firewall configuration issues there. While our problem wound up being due to a router that we’ve been re-configuring endlessly to test a huge number of different products, a typical business won’t have these issues. Still, it seems as though some firewalls will require tweaking to work properly with 8×8, and the company’s technical staff was helpful in trying to figure out our problem. They also supplied us with a freely available network scanning utility that IT staffers will find helpful if they need to track issues of their own.

Virtual Office Softphone and Mobile Client

8×8’s software engine is the Virtual Office client. As stated, it’s available as a desktop download for PCs or Macs, as a mobile client for Android and iOS, and as a web browser-only client, which is the way we tested it. The list of available features and capabilities out of the box is impressive, and includes call forwarding (so calls can be forwarded to your cell phone if you’re not in the office, for example) as well as a chat client for use with other people in your organization. There’s even a presence feature so you can designate yourself as away, busy, or available.

The mobile client, available for iOS and Android, lets users access their office phone via their personal mobile device. Using the app, you can make and receive calls (including video calls if your device is capable), check voicemail, define presence, handle 3-way calling, record any call, and even receive faxes. What makes this really attractive for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) scenarios is, that if you make calls through the mobile client, then recipients will see your office phone number and extension, not the mobile device’s number. I liked the way you can see your voicemails in a list and then listen or delete from that view. Additionally, if you’re using both a desktop IP phone and a mobile device, you can hit “*88” on the phone’s keypad to switch between mobile and desktop while on a live call.

Another important feature where 8×8 is solid, though not perfect, is integration with third-party apps. Out of the box, the service will integrate with Salesforce, Netsuite, Zendesk, and Microsoft Dynamics. It also has some integration with Microsoft Outlook but mainly through scheduling and by sending alert emails.

What it doesn’t have is an open application programming interface (API) that those with sufficient programming expertise can use to build custom integrations of their own. We did find that with RingCentral (for Business), though not with many of the other competitors.

An Excellent Value

Overall, 8×8 Virtual Office Pro stood out as an excellent and full-featured value among SMB-oriented VoIP service providers. It’s got a rich feature set, at a friendly price. If basic features are what you need, then you can opt for the $19.99 per user per month Virtual Office package. This includes the desktop and mobile apps as well as unlimited calling in the USA and Canada, music on hold, a conference-calling bridge, and the out-of-the-box integrations.

Those with more advanced needs can use the package we tested, which is Virtual Office Pro. This option has more video and collaboration features, including call recording and web video conferencing. We tested the Unlimited calling plan version of this bundle but, if your call volume is low, you might also want the metered version, which lets you take your call billing on a per-minute basis.

Hardware phones are optional for all plans and always third-party, which means 8×8 doesn’t make its own phones like ShoreTel does. 8×8 runs constant promotion pricing on different hardware phones, so check with a sales rep to see what the best deal currently is. If you need high-end or a large number of phones (or both), then 8×8 offers an Enterprise phone plan that lets you pay a monthly fee for your phones, such that you will own them after two or three years (similar to the cell phone contract you’re probably under now).

That’s a lot of pricing flexibility, which is just one more thing to like about 8×8. Companies that are looking for a call center solution have a whole different product available to them, namely 8×8 Virtual Contact Center. That’s not related to the service reviewed here, but it’s also fully integrated with the 8×8 Virtual Office client. For SMBs looking for a reliable VoIP provider, 8×8 Virtual Office Pro is a great choice and well worth our Editors’ Choice designation.

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