3CX Phone System Free Edition IP telephony - Review

3CX Phone System Free Edition IP telephony - Review

3CX Phone System Free Edition IP telephony - Review
Build your own small-business PBX with this easy-to-deploy Windows software

Pros: No special hardware needed; works with Sip phones, gateways, hosted services and trunks; straightforward web-based management; softphone included; free version offers extensive feature set

Cons: Some features not available in free edition

Bottomline: If you’re in the market for an IP telephony solution, this software-based PBX is definitely a worthwhile choice

Price: Free

Manufacturer: 3CX

The 3CX Phone System for Windows is a software-based IP telephony solution that can make and receive calls over the internet and provide a range of common PBX features.

It’s also available free, just like the popular open-source Asterisk product. But there the similarities end, with 3CX proving a lot easier to deploy and manage than its open-source rival.

No special hardware is required, just a reasonably well-specified Windows PC. You can even run it on a virtual machine if you want.

A single setup routine makes light work of the installation, although behind the scenes there’s quite a lot going on. An Apache web server is installed, along with a PostgreSQL database server and separate background servers to handle call routing, voicemail and other tasks.

Fortunately you don’t have to know anything about any of these, thanks to a simple browser-based management interface for everything. You’re also stepped through the initial setup tasks, starting with the required extensions which need to be configured in the software then matched to handsets or softphones. A free 3CX softphone is provided, along with instructions on how to configure popular IP handsets from vendors such as Grandstream, Linksys, Snom and others, enabling us to quickly build a working PBX able to make and receive calls between extensions, forward and transfer calls and so on.

The next step is to then connect the PBX to the public switched telephone network (PSTN), which takes a little longer. Unlike some alternative products, there’s no built-in gateway for use with plug-in ISDN adapters. Rather, 3CX relies on the use of third-party gateway appliances. These can be difficult to configure, but templates for use with popular Grandstream, Linksys and other products are included to eliminate much of the guesswork usually required.

Alternatively you can simply connect the PBX to the outside world via hosted Sip services, using your internet connection rather than dedicated phone lines. Again, preconfigured templates for popular services make this a doddle, such that it took only about five minutes to connect our test PBX to Draytel and Sipgate services to make and receive external calls. Support for generic Sip trunks and DID (Direct Inward Dialling) is also available.

In terms of functionality, much of what you want in a small-business PBX is delivered by the 3CX software, including voicemail with email notification, a basic Integrated Voice Response (‘press button 1 for sales’, and so on) facility, music on hold, hunt groups and Outlook integration. We found it all fairly easy to configure, although some technical knowledge is assumed and a lot of small businesses would need to have the product set up for them.

Four versions are available, all supporting an unlimited number of extensions. However, the free version is limited to eight simultaneous calls, as is the Small Business edition (from £268 ex Vat). Up to 16 calls are supported on the Pro version (from £568 ex Vat) and 32 if you buy the Enterprise edition, which starts at £821 ex Vat, upgradeable to 128. Commercial versions offer additional functions, such as call recording, automatic phone provisioning and Exchange integration. Users can also manage their own setup via a web portal, and optional commercial support is another advantage on the paid-for versions.