Review: 4 videocon devices

Review: 4 low-cost videoconferencing devices keep you connected (video)

These four mobile video/audio kits can enhance face-to-face meetings with remote colleagues and clients relatively cheaply.

Review

4 videocon devices

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We all know that there's nothing like face time to get your point across at a company brainstorming session or to convince a reluctant customer to close the deal -- but these days, that is often not possible. Meeting remotely has become much more a part of standard business practice, especially with many employees located far from their company's main office and with businesses from small to large dealing with clients on an international scale.

Until recently, converting your meeting space to accommodate video communication with out-of-office participants meant you had to install expensive (and permanent) equipment -- or cope with an unsatisfactory speakerphone. However, new hardware is now available that can turn any office, cubicle or even café table into a videoconference zone.

The equipment doesn't have to bust the IT budget, either. According to Ira Weinstein, senior analyst at Wainhouse Research, the hottest sector of today's videoconferencing gear market is the low end. "Videoconferencing at work is growing tremendously quickly," observes Weinstein, adding that he's seen a 30% to 50% growth in the use of under-$2,500 videoconferencing technology at some of the big companies that Wainhouse works with.

This new generation of entry-level video gear is not only less expensive and easier to set up and use than a dedicated video room, but it can connect with software-based video programs like Skype, Lync and Google Hangouts. That means that you can have the video gear at one end of the conversation and just a laptop or tablet at the other.

Four moveable videoconferencing packages

For this roundup, I've tested four relatively inexpensive products: the AVer VC520, the Lifesize Icon Flex, the Logitech ConferenceCam Connect and the Ricoh Unified Communication System (UCS) P3500. These systems run from about $500 to $2,200. Compare that with a dedicated video room that can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, requires personnel to run and often needs a reservation to use, and you have a potential revolution in how business is conducted.

"The biggest advantage is that these devices let employees make spur-of-the-moment video calls because the equipment is cheap enough to be on every desk and you don't have to book a room in advance," says Weinstein.

The four systems couldn't be more different, though. While two -- the AVer VC520 and the Lifesize Icon Flex-- have separate video and audio components that are cabled together, the Logitech ConferenceCam Connect and the Ricoh UCS P3500 are self-contained and can be more easily carried between rooms or cities. If there's no AC outlet handy, the Logitech system can even run on its own internal battery.

After setting up each of these four videoconferencing kits and making more than a dozen calls on each, I'm convinced that this is the way to go for making video chatting easier in a corporate setting. It's an easy way to see and be seen.

AVer VC520

AVer is a company that usually focuses on high-end videoconferencing equipment. However, the AVer VC520, the newest addition to the company's line, is a three-piece videoconferencing kit that rewards you with excellent audio and video, along with a seductive price tag of around $1,000.

Rather than being self-contained, as is the case with the Logitech and Ricoh video systems, the AVer has a separate video camera and speakerphone, along with a small connection hub. These are wired together using three 16-foot cables (happily, the plugs are color coded). Since it doesn't have its own battery, the connection hub has to be plugged into a power source.

The result is that the AVer, which weighs a total of 12.3 lb., is less immediately portable than some of its competition (although it comes in a cardboard box that has a handle and can be used as a carrying case in a pinch). It includes a mounting bracket for setting it up on a wall or shelf.

AVer VC520 AVer

AVer VC520

Setup

Once it's perched on its the mounting base, the camera's large cylindrical lens sits 9 in. above the tabletop, nearly at eye-level for seated participants. Like the Lifesize and Logitech systems, the AVer can capture 1920 x 1080 HD video. An LED lets you know when the camera is active by changing from red (inactive) to blue (active).

The camera is able to take in an 82-degree field of view without background distortion; it includes H.264 video compression hardware as well as USB video class software.

The circular speakerphone is 2.5 in. tall and 9 in. in diameter; it contains a speaker and three microphones. Around its edge are buttons for adjusting the speaker volume and muting the microphone.

Because there's no wireless connection, if you want to link the AVer with a mobile phone, you'd need to use an audio cable with standard 2.5mm jacks at each end. When they're linked, a light glows on the pod's circumference.

The included remote control is the largest remote of the four products reviewed here. It has buttons for calling and hanging up as well as the ability to raise or lower the volume or mute the audio; it runs on a pair of AAA batteries.

You can also use the remote to control the camera by using its built-in arrow controls -- you can make the camera pan (by 260 degrees), tilt (by 115 degrees) and zoom (using a 12X optical zoom lens) the image. When I tried it out, the action was quiet and unobtrusive, with a smoothness that's usually reserved for cameras costing many times more. You can configure up to 10 presets for positioning the lens, which can be recalled with the remote's numeric keypad.

In order to work with the AVer, you have to connect it to a computer loaded with AVer's PTZapp software. The application allows you to work with remote users via Skype, Hangouts, Lync, WebEx, Adobe Connect and GotoMeeting, video services like Zoom and Blue Jeans, and dedicated video rooms that use H.264 streams. You can install PTZapp on Windows or OS X systems; there aren't any Android or iOS apps available.

The software provides adjustments for brightness, sharpness and white balance. In addition to a window for remotely aiming the camera, there's a diagnostic utility that checks on the connections. Unfortunately, the entire PTZapp interface is squeezed into an awkwardly small box that can't be enlarged.

In use

All told, it took me 15 minutes to go from boxed AVer to the first video call.

Of the four video kits I looked at, the AVer had the best audio and video quality, with smooth streaming and a sharp focus that rivaled cameras costing three times as much. I was able to read facial expressions without any problem; the camera also worked well for showing paper documents, small objects and even a tablet screen.

Its audio was always in sync. Speaker sound was rich and clear, and the microphones were good for up to about 20 feet before voices started to drop out or sound hollow at the other end of the call. (For larger rooms you can add a second speaker; the speakers will be available separately for a list price of $349 starting this September.) With less-than-ideal Wi-Fi bandwidths, however, it suffered from more image dropouts and pixilation, and out-of-sync audio, than the others.

As with the Flex and Logitech gear, the AVer can't directly drive a display. Using the host computer's external display port did just fine, though.

The AVer comes with a three-year warranty. AVer says it will replace broken equipment in 72 hours.

Bottom line

While it may not be the cheapest of these four packages, the AVer VC520 is a bargain considering that its audio and video hardware is very close to the quality of those used in dedicated video rooms.

Lifesize Icon Flex

Small, lightweight (at 6.4 lb.) and easy to hide, the Lifesize Icon Flex video gear looks like a scale model of what you'd expect to find in a videoconferencing room. Its price tag, however (which is just under $2,000), may deter you from setting up more than a handful of videoconferencing huddle zones at work.

Like the AVer VC520, the Lifesize has a separate camera and small circular microphone pod (although it does without the AVer's connection hub). They are connected via a pair of cables that provide the flexibility to set the system up around a long conference room table.

lifesize icon flex Lifesize

Lifesize Icon Flex

Setup

The camera is about one-third the size of AVer's cam, making it less noticeable and conspicuous. The Lifesize doesn't have a battery; it has to be plugged into the wall.

Like the AVer and Logitech, the camera has the ability to create 1920 x 1080 HD video. Its lens can take in a 70-degree field of view and delivers a non-distorted view of the room. However, the Lifesize camera sits 4 in. above the tabletop, so it needs to be aimed upwards at participants. This tends to show more ceiling than the others (and can put participants at an unflattering angle).

When you're connected, a light at the camera's base glows blue. A light around the lens also glows blue when video is streaming.

The Digital MicPod is a small circular microphone with a 3.2-in. diameter and 0.6-inch height -- in other words, it's about the size of an ashtray. The mic was able to pick up participants from about 10 feet away; after that its audio became hollow and unreliable. You can add more MicPods if you need to fill a larger room; they're available for about $375 each.

The pod has a central button to mute the audio for confidential discussions; a light changes from blue to red. On the downside, there's no way to connect a phone to the pod. If you need to, you can use the larger Lifesize Phone touch-screen speakerphone with the Flex gear; it adds about $1,000 to the price tag, however.

I found the Flex's remote control (which is powered by a pair of AAA batteries) to be the least useful of the four. It can't start or end a call; it has keys only for adjusting the volume (and muting it) as well as controlling the camera's pan (245 degrees), tilt (70 degrees) and zoom. It has a 3X optical and a 2X digital zoom for an overall 6X zooming capability. When I panned around the room, I found the action to be slightly but noticeably jerky; also, the drive motors were much louder than the AVer's mechanism, making it annoying to use at times.

You can use the devices to connect via Skype, Lync Hangouts or Cisco Jabber. However, unlike the other equipment reviewed here, the camera doesn't have H.264 hardware compression built in. Instead it compresses the video into a motion-JPEG stream that the software video conferencing app has to convert to H.264. This puts more stress on the host PC to prepare the video for transmission -- making your computer work harder than it needs to.

Hardware compression is only available when you're connected to the Lifesize Cloud video gateway, which can connect to dedicated video rooms or services like Zoom and Blue Jeans as well. The service costs about $11 a month per seat for a company with up to 100 users. Lifesize also has a Guest app that is available for iOS, Android, OS X and Windows.

In use

As with the AVer system, it took me about 15 minutes to get the Lifesize device up and running.

The Lifesize's video quality was middle-of-the-road with some choppiness, a soft focus and an overall darker appearance. Still, it was easy to make out faces, small objects, a tablet screen and even paper documents held in front of the camera.

Its audio was generally top notch, with rich tones, little or no echoing and excellent synchronization over a range of uses. On the other hand, like the AVer, it was not tolerant of a poor LAN connection -- there were blackouts, pixelated images and dropped frames.

Like the Logitech and AVer, the only way to drive a large display or a projector is to use the external monitor port on the host computer.

The Lifesize Icon Flex comes with a one-year warranty.

And a last note: While Lifesize is owned by Logitech, there isn't much overlap between their wares. Lifesize equipment is sold through dealers and integrators while Logitech's ConferenceCam line is marketed online and at retail.

Bottom line

Overall, because the Lifesize Icon Flex is little more awkward to carry around than the other products covered here, it's a good choice for a dedicated meeting room where you want excellent audio quality and a camera that doesn't dominate the table.

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