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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Logitech ConferenceCam Connect

With its self-contained design, Logitech's $500 ConferenceCam Connect sets new standards for economy, portability and ease of use.

Available in black and silver or black and red, the Logitech looks more like a Thermos bottle than video gear. It is essentially a 12-in.-high cylinder with a 3-in. diameter weighing 1.6 lb. -- making it the portability winner among the units reviewed here. (On the other hand, the cylinder is a bit top heavy and can be tipped over a little too easily.)

Logitech ConferenceCam Connect Logitech

Logitech ConferenceCam Connect

Setup

The system's camera can stream 1920 x 1080 video. It uses USB Video Class 1.5 software and H.264 video hardware compression to take the stress off of the host computer for smoother video streams and reduced bandwidth use. The Zeiss lens is set to 10.5 in. -- at roughly eye level on a table for seated participants -- and provides a 90-degree field of view and which takes in a good size room without distorting the surroundings.

Below the lens are lights and buttons for volume and mute as well as a battery status LED. When connected to a video call, a blue light under the system glows, giving Logitech an eerie appearance.

At the unit's base are Logitech's speakers and pair of microphones. On top, the system has control areas for turning it on and off, changing from computer to wireless phone mode as well as a handy Near Field Communications (NFC) connection spot for quickly linking to a phone, something the others lack.

In the back, the Logitech also has a power connection and a USB port for connecting it to a host computer -- it works directly with Windows PCs and Macs; it can also share screens with Android or Windows phones and tablets via a Miracast Wi-Fi connection. There's no way to connect an iPhone or iPad, though. There's also an HDMI port for driving a display.

In a brilliant design move, the system's remote control doubles as a lens cover -- it is magnetically held in place over the Logitech's lens to protect it when it's not being used. When you pull it away, you can see that it's the smallest remote control of the four, with prominent keys for answering a call and hanging up; it also has controls for zooming in and out (the camera has a 4X digital zoom), volume and mute. It runs on a watch battery.

A mechanical thumbwheel on the Connect tower lets you aim the lens up and down. The remote also offers camera controls so that you can pan and tilt the lens by about 45 degrees with a four-way arrow control pad. It offers much less range than the others, and I ended up rotating the Logitech with my hand to take in others at a conference.

In use

Getting started is quick because no extra software is required -- it took all of five minutes for me to make the first call. I just plugged the Logitech into a notebook and started Skype.

In fact, the Logitech can work with a variety of videoconferencing systems, including Skype, Lync, Cisco Jabber, Google Hangouts and WebEx as well as most room video conferencing gear that uses the H.264 standard.

The Logitech's video quality is surprisingly good, with excellent detail and the ability to work with low and bright light conditions. It captured excellent whites and had good color balance, although it lacks the detailed video and audio controls for fine-tuning that the AVer provides. Throughout several video chats, I was able to view tablet screens and even paper documents held in front of the lens as well as recognize facial expressions.

The audio was generally crisp and well synchronized with the action, thanks to its pair of microphones and built-in echo-cancelation circuitry; though at times voices had a vibrato quality to them. The audio worked best when I was no more than about ten feet away from the unit; farther than that and voices sounded hollow.

While it has an HDMI port, you can't directly link Logitech to an external display while running a computer-based videoconference; you can use the host PC's external monitor port. The unit's HDMI port is for using Logitech with a display when you're running a conference from a phone or tablet that's linked wirelessly to Logitech via Miracast.

In addition to the ConferenceCam Connect, Logitech offers a separate model (the BCC950) that has its camera mounted on an extendable pod and a more traditional system (CC3000e) that offers separate video and audio.

If you're far from an AC outlet, Logitech's built-in battery can, according to the company, power a videoconference up to 3 hours and 20 minutes. A rudimentary battery gauge shows when the cells are full or at 75%, 25% or 10%.

The Logitech comes with a two-year warranty.

Bottom line

At $500 or less at online retailers, Logitech's ConferenceCam Connect is a breakthrough system that not only takes most of the pain out of videoconferencing but can easily travel with you -- and does it all for much less than the competition.

Ricoh Unified Communication System P3500

With its snap-open camera and self-contained system, Ricoh's UCS P3500 can be carried to where it's needed, regardless of whether that's room-to-room or city-to-city.

Ricoh Unified Communication System P3500 Ricoh

Ricoh Unified Communication System P3500

Setup

From a distance, the Ricoh resembles a small notebook. At 1.5 x 11.2 x 7.4 in. and 3.8 lb., it's in the same portability class as Logitech's ConferenceCam Connect, although it's more than twice as big and heavy. It lacks battery power, but is the only one of the four to include a really durable carrying case.

It only took me six minutes to set up the Ricoh -- and most of that was trying to figure out the illustrations on the setup sheet. Press the Push button and the camera -- which is mounted on a long, thin rod --pops out of the base. When fully upright, the camera sits about 11 in. above the tabletop and provides an excellent angle to view seated participants during a call.

While the other systems reviewed here allow you to remotely aim the camera, you need to move everything manually. The camera stalk allows the head to rotate 270 degrees as well as tilt up or down by 90 degrees.

The Ricoh's lens takes in a wide 125-degree field of view, making it perfect for larger rooms, but it tends to distort the background, so that vertical walls appear to be curved. While the other devices have zoom controls that move on a continuum, in this case, the lens can only be set to any of four zoom levels up to 4X.

All this offers less freedom of motion compared to others, but there is one big benefit: You can aim the P3500's camera nearly straight down to show a close-up of a document, a tablet screen or a small object.

Capable of capturing and transmitting 1280 x 720 video, the Ricoh uses H.264 hardware compression. Overall, it was the least sharp of the four, making it harder to pick up details and subtle facial expressions.

Unlike any of the other three devices, the Ricoh doesn't require a PC to operate -- all you need is a display and a wired or wireless Internet connection. While it doesn't need a host computer, the Ricoh can connect to a Mac or Windows PC by using an included USB 3.1 Micro B cable and Ricoh's Screen Sender software.

The device has a single speaker and microphone, with echo cancelation. If you need to, you can plug in an external microphone.

There's a multitude of buttons across the top of the system menu on the display, including ones for power, volume, mute and opening its menu. The remote control (which uses two AAA batteries) is slightly bigger than that of the Logitech and includes buttons for turning the gear on and off, adjusting the volume, muting the audio and blanking the video.

There is no button for initiating a call, although there is one to disconnect the connection. To start a conference, you use the onscreen software menu or the remote to open the contact list and select someone to video chat with.

Management functions, including creating or editing a contact list, are done through a Ricoh website. This allows a company to maintain a network-based list of employees able to videoconference, which can save lots of time and confusion when setting up video calls.

There's one big problem, though: Because the Ricoh only works through its own video gateway, you can't connect to Skype, Lync or other popular online systems.

There are two alternatives: You can use a video gateway service like Zoom or Blue Jeans, or connect using one of Ricoh's UCS apps; they're available for Windows PCs, Macs and Android and iOS phones and tablets. However, while the apps themselves are free, there is a charge of $25/month to use Ricoh's video gateway service.

In use

The look and feel of the iPad, PC and Android apps match that of the software built into the P3500 unit, reducing the learning curve considerably. The system can work with an unlimited number of clients, but displays a maximum of up to nine at a time; Ricoh promises to expand that to 20 at a time (although that means the images will be pretty small). It takes about 10 seconds to create the conference once the connection has been made.

The interface has a bandwidth meter at the top to let you know how fast your connection is. Nice touch, but the video was choppy at times with hollow-sounding audio when the participant speaking wasn't right in front of the system and the audio was sometimes out of sync. Whenever it encounters a bright light, the Ricoh's camera obscures the object in a halo. It did well in low-light situations, though.

The Ricoh is the most expensive of the four at $2,200 and its $25 monthly subscription will add up quickly. It comes with a one-year warranty.

Bottom line

While its ability to be folded up and put into a travel bag makes the Ricoh P3500 the travel king, it falls short in video quality and economy; in addition, the lack of compatibility with Skype and other popular online applications renders it unsuitable for occasional use.

Conclusions

Videoconferencing gear has the power to rewrite the rules of business, with workers interacting with each other and clients while viewing the same documents. The four devices I looked at each came at that goal from a different angle.

While the $2,200 Ricoh P3500 has a cool portable design and a travel case, it falls short on video quality and requires that you manually move the camera head to get the right view. It's also the most expensive of the four and requires a monthly subscription to use.

At $2,000, the LifeSize Icon Flex is a little cheaper and is more traditional, with a separate camera and microphone pod. The view can be remotely panned, tilted and zoomed, and I like that despite its smallness, the Flex has full and rich sound. On the other hand, its remote is too minimalist and its cables get in the way.

The AVer VC520 has a similar component-based approach to this genre and also has the ability to pan, tilt and zoom the camera. Its combination of excellent audio and video, along with a $1,000 price tag, makes it worthy of consideration for outfitting locations where you don't intend to move the equipment too often.

Finally, Logitech's ConferenceCam Connect is not only the smallest and lightest of the four, but its innovative design can change the paradigm of business video conferencing. I love the remote control that is also a lens cover when it's not being used, the device's ability to run on battery power, its wireless phone connection and its upright stance.

At $500 -- a fraction of what most other videoconferencing gear goes for -- it puts video calls within reach for smaller companies (and makes it possible to buy several for larger organizations). With the ability to drop a ConferenceCam Connect on any desk or cubicle in an organization -- or to throw one in a suitcase for a meeting from a hotel room or conference -- this could be the device that turns videoconferencing into a convenient way to interact rather than a painful process.

4 videoconferencing devices: Features

 Aver VC520Lifesize Icon FlexLogitech ConferenceCam ConnectRicoh UCS P3500
Number of components 3 2 1 1
Lens height 9.0 in. 4.0 in. 10.5 in 11.0 in.
Field of view 82 degrees 70 degrees 90 degrees 125 degrees
Range of motion:        
     Pan 260 degrees 245 degrees 45 degrees 270 degrees
     Tilt 115 degrees 70 degrees 45 degrees 90 degrees
      Zoom 12X 6X 4X 4X
Video resolution 1920 x 1080 1920 x 1080 1920 x 1080 1280 x 800
Hardware compression H.264 Motion JPEG H.264 H.264
Works with Skype, Lync, Hangouts, WebEx, GotoMeeting, Adobe Connect Skype, Lync Hangouts, Cisco, Jabber, LifesizeCloud Skype, Lync, Hangouts, Cisco Jabber, WebEx Ricoh Guest apps (iOS, Android, PC, Mac)
Warranty 3 years 1 year 2 year 1 year
Direct price $1,000 N/A $500 $2,200
Retail price $936 - $1,002 $1,731 - $1,986 $395 - $464 N/A
 
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