- Neat design
- good build quality
- delivers high-quality hands-free two-way audio in reasonably quiet conditions
- Dual microphone array struggles to combat noisy conditions
- makes extra demands on your notebook's battery
- relatively expensive
One of Skype's selling points is its high audio quality, paired with very efficient echo cancellation. On a decent pair of speakers, Skype-to-Skype calls can sound almost as good as a radio broadcast, which leaves notebook owners with tinny output somewhat at a disadvantage.
Or so thinks veteran videoconferencing company Polycom. It has produced the Communicator, a USB external speaker/microphone combo around the size -- and not too far from the styling -- of a 1960s pocket transistor radio. Designed to give proper hands-free, high-quality two-way audio primarily for Skype, it doubles as a general-purpose active speaker for more general use.
The two microphones in the unit are used together with Polycom's patented signal processing system to cancel out echo; the company claims that this promotes clarity on Skype.
Installation is easy -- it's just a USB device, so all the complications come from Windows' own clumsy way of allocating audio devices to applications. In general, you can just plug it in and it works: there are microphone mute, volume, call answer and Skype buttons on the front, and they're surrounded by a glowing ring that changes colour depending on whether the thing is listening, muted or whatever. A small stand pops out of the back to prop the thing up at a handy angle, the USB cable coils neatly into a gap behind that stand, and the whole lot comes in a handy carrying case.
And that's all there is to say about it. It works, although whether it's worth £99 (inc. VAT) depends rather on how bad your notebook's own speakers are. In the short time we had with the test unit, we tried it in office, domestic and open-air situations with various acoustics and levels of ambient noise. Although the extra volume from the speaker is helpful, you still need to get close to the microphones in order to be audible. In most difficult situations, a full microphone array is needed to combat external noise -- two just won't cut it. So it's a shame Polycom didn't do a bit more engineering.
In quiet conditions, Skype is more than good enough to give a splendid account of itself with an ordinary speakers/microphone combination: the better equipped computer will have no need for the Communicator. Not only will a two-watt speaker and a gaudily glowing LED ring will put an additional drain your batteries, but it's also an extra box to lug around -- and one that comes much further down the food chain than the mobile phone or a handheld.
The Polycom Communicator is basically a gimmick. It has its uses, but is unlikely to have a general application where it adds real value. A better, cheaper and more flexible solution may be to buy a Bluetooth dongle and headset pair: this won't have the quality, but it will ensure reliable communication in difficult conditions. After all, people use Skype to save money -- and spending more than the cost of a new mobile phone on the system seems an odd way to do it.
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