7 low-cost videoconferencing services: Which is best for your meeting?

Remote colleagues and friends are the norm today. We look at 7 online services that help you keep in touch.

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Cisco WebEx Meetings

Price: Free basic tier (3 users); paid plans start at $24/month

Platforms: Desktop browsers that are Java-capable, Android, iOS, BlackBerry

Cisco is known mainly for its networking products, including VoIP and conferencing solutions. WebEx, which was bought by Cisco in 2007, emphasizes sharing and collaboration tools -- whiteboarding, remote control and, of course, multiuser video chat.

The free tier for WebEx gives you a good taste of how the service works and what's offered, even if the feature set is minimal. You're allowed three people per meeting with one host, standard-definition video, and toll-call dial-in (no toll-free). Interactivity is limited to whiteboarding, document- and desktop-sharing, and a shared uploadable file repository that holds up to 250MB.

Cisco WebEx Meetings
Whiteboarding is one of many functions that can be shared with other WebEx participants.

WebEx Meetings uses Java to download and run an appropriate app for the Windows or OS X platform that you're using (there have been some issues with OS X Lion). There are also apps for iOS, Android and BlackBerry devices, although the capabilities vary. For example, iOS users can participate in two-way video, but Android folks can only do this on a tablet, not on a phone.

Normally, in a group chat, the focus for the main video window follows whoever is speaking. However, a "Who do you want participants to see?" function lets you override this and direct focus to someone specific.

Application and desktop sharing is quite flexible -- you can share a specific monitor/desktop, a specific file (either locally or already uploaded to WebEx's servers) or a running application. Shared apps have easy-to-see icons next to their minimize buttons, and when you share your entire desktop, there is a green border around the edges of the display.

WebEx has an integrated meeting recording function, which stores all recorded files on WebEx's servers by default. There's no way to record locally, but I actually liked the remote-storage function: that way, I could record all I liked and then fetch only the files I needed. This also saved me the trouble of having to upload the recording somewhere for distribution to others: With WebEx, all you need to do is send them a link.

The "Premium 8" paid plan ($24) lets you have a meeting with a maximum of eight people, upgrades video quality to HD, allows toll-free dial-ins, raises the file storage allotment from 250MB to 1GB and adds remote control and professional support. More advanced tiers, including support for up to 500 people, are available for a custom price quote.

One useful bonus feature for paying users is the ability to have the WebEx system call participants directly on their own phones, so people don't have to dial in themselves.

Bottom line

A useable free tier, multiple client support and session-recording functions are just a few of many things that make WebEx Meetings worthwhile.

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WebEx offers two ways to follow a conversation, and offers remote control and whiteboarding.

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