In November 2009, my employer switched from a standard desk phone controlled by a Private Branch Exchange (PBX) to a new phone system that uses the Internet and Microsoft Office Communicator software. This means that there is no longer a telephone on my desk -- what I have now is a Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset plugged into my computer. The computer runs Microsoft's Office Communicator, which lets me punch in phone numbers and make calls.
Recommend this product?
To be honest, it's a little hard for me to separate the Plantronics headset from the computer system to which it is attached, but this review will try to focus on the Plantronics headset. Since I got the Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset from my employer, I don't know for sure what it costs. However, I think it's around $100.
What it is
The Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset is a more-or-less standard telephone headset. There is a single earpiece with an attached microphone boom, and a springy headband that goes up over the head. The HW251N can be worn on either ear -- the mic boom rotates to be near the mouth whether you are wearing the headset on either the left or right ear. Leading out of the headset is a thin black wire about 30 inches long, which has a proprietary connector that plugs into a control module about the size of a large flash drive.
This control unit has switches for headset volume, mic mute and to turn the headset on/off, although the latter switch doesn't seem to do anything in my office setup. The other end of the control unit has a medium-diameter cable about six feet long and tipped with what looks like a standard Ethernet (RJ45) connector.
The connector plugs into another small black module that's bigger than the control module -- this second module looks something like a black flash drive on steroids, about four inches long, an inch wide and 3/4-inch thick. This module has the model number HW251N-USB on it. Running out of the HW251N-USB module is a two foot long cable that ends with a standard USB connector.
I know all that sounds complicted but it's basically just a headset with two inline modules attached to the cord. One module has a volume/mute control and the other is just a little black box. None of these components requires any batteries -- the Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset is powered from a computer's USB port.
How it works
I admit to being a bit hazy on how exactly the computer and Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset combine to make phone calls. First, the HW251N headset must be plugged into an available USB port on a computer, and the computer must be booted up and running the correct software. In my case, the software is Microsoft Office Communicator.
Microsoft Office Communicator is running when I boot my computer, and its window shows the numbers of several of my co-workers, as well as 10 of the most recent numbers I've called. I can click on one of the co-worker listings or on one of the recently called numbers, then click a little phone handset on the right to dial a call to that person. If I need to call someone who is not a co-worker and is not listed in one of the previous calls, I just punch in the number on the computer's keyboard. Microsoft Office Communicator immediately recognizes that this is a phone number and enters it into the correct field. I then click on a little telephone handset icon to place the call.
The call itself is carried as digital bits on the Internet in much the same way as a service like Skype or Magic Jack. No twisted-pair telephone line is needed to use the Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset -- just a computer, the right software and fast data service.
On the call
With the headset on and a number dialed, I hear the phone at the other end ringing. Once the person answers, I have a normal conversation, just as I would wearing a headset with a more typical desk phone. Meanwhile, Microsoft Office Communicator places another window on the screen that shows the status of this call. To hang up the call, I have to click a small red telephone handset icon on this status window.
As for the quality of the call, the audio I receive is uniformly dull and weak. I can turn it up a bit with the volume button on the Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset's control module, but this resets for every call. Therefore, I have to turn it up for every call. The sound has little crispness and just sounds dull. My old desk headset (a Plantronics CS55) plugged into the traditional phone was much crisper, louder and more intelligible. The HW251N headset has good enough sound to understand what people are saying but it's getting close to the edge for me. I would MUCH rather have the crispness and volume of the old headset back.
I have not heard what it sounds like at the other end, but a couple of people have told me that I was hard to hear and my voice was breaking up. In my own ear, I can hear little of my voice -- there is very little "sidetone" to confirm that the HW251N headset is working properly.
On the positive side, the Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset is comfortable to wear for hours. It is lightweight and I like the amount of tension in the spring band, although it may be too tight for some. The mic boom holds the mic a little too far from the mouth for my liking, though.
Hanging up the call
I received an hour-long training class on using the Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset and Microsoft Office Communicator, and was shown how to initiate and hang-up on a call. Still, I wasn't prepared for the tiny "hang-up" icon on the connection status window and really had to search for it at the end of the first few calls. It's also really easy to click to a different window and lose where the status window is, and I can only hang up by clicking on the icon on the status window. I'm used to it now, but it was annoying to have to search for the tiny hang-up icon for the first few calls. That icon should be MUCH bigger and there should be a big hang-up icon on the main Office Communicator window.
There are a couple of interesting things that became obvious as soon as I started using the Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset and the associated Microsoft Office Communicator sofware. First, the company gets to save a TON of money on desk phones and PBX systems. My employer was renting something like 400 PBX systems across the country and these will all ultimately be gone when the entire company installs the HW251N headset and Office Communicator software. For a company looking to reduce costs while maintaining productivity, this system looks like a winner.
Even cooler is that, with this system, my desk phone is where ever my work laptop computer is. If I'm on a road trip, I just have to pack my HW251N headset and plug it into my laptop, and my desk phone (with its normal phone number) is with me. I can be in a Starbucks sipping a cappucino with my laptop connected to the restaurant's WiFi network, and get business calls on my desk phone. I can be working from home in a snow storm and have my desk phone with me. That is really very cool.
As cool as the concept of the Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset and Microsoft Office Communicator software is, the implementation is not perfect by a wide margin. The HW251N headset sounds dull and people at the other end have complained of breakup. The volume is low and must be adjusted for every call, as it doesn't save the settings. Hanging up at the end of the call can have you searching for a tiny hang-up icon. On the other hand, I really appreciate taking my desk phone with me where ever I may be.
The Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset is comfortable and mostly easy to live with. But its sound quality could be better and the integration wth Microsoft Office Communicator has a couple of bugs that need to be worked out. I recommend the Plantronics Supra Plus HW251N headset, but just barely. Take care to understand its limitations before you jump whole-heartedly into its promise.