The latest generation of videoconferencing systems supports high-quality MPEG4 video, prefers IP to ISDN connections, and costs you less than a couple of business-class tickets to New York.
Perhaps more importantly, since we last tested VC there have been some new standards that have worked their way into the products' firmware. When we last visited VC, MPEG4 (H.264) was not quite there yet, but this time only the Penteview as tested did not feature this standard. The Penteview should however be provided with updated firmware that will include H.264 by the time you read this.
So what improvements does H.264 bring? Quite simply the video coding algorithm provides equal picture quality at half the bit rate of H.263, so if you have limited bandwidth issues, H.264 will be a sight for sore eyes.
Last time we looked IP was making inroads into a field previously dominated by ISDN. With the latest products, IP has further strengthened its position: for example, Sony doesn't support ISDN out of the box, although a six-port ISDN unit is available as an option. ISDN is the more secure of the connections as it's point to point. To provide security for IP connections, all the vendorsÃ¢â‚¬"with the exception of the PenteviewÃ¢â‚¬"provide encryption, in some cases both AES and DES. Another strength of ISDN is that the bandwidth is guaranteed, whereas your call over IP will probably have a bandwidth that is anything but constant.
The Polycom and Sony also don't have data conferencing or collaboration supported as standard. Both vendors supply optional equipment to bring this capability to the units, but the facility adds significant cost.
We evaluated five products from four vendors:
- Polycom VSX 7000
- Sony PCS-1P
- Tandberg 990
- Tandberg T7000
- VPA Australia Zoom Networks Penteview Conference 2012
The Sony has some very minor assembly required, namely the fixing of the camera unit to the top of the base unit. The Polycom VSX 7000 is a cleverly designed unit, shipping with a high-quality mono speaker that includes an AC adaptor that is also used to power the VSX 7000. If you need ISDN, the optional four-port module plugs into an internal bay in the speaker.
The Penteview is quite a different beast and is the marriage of a VC codec and a Samsung 42in plasma display. You can simply purchase the codec and mate it to your own display unit.
The Polycom, with its colour-coded plugs and ports, is the simplest of the lot to cable, but the Tandberg 990 and Sony are not that far behind.
Given the variation in the systems features and proprietary menu systems the ease of configuration varies from unit to unit.
Both Tandbergs use a traditional-style menu system that relies on popup menus, much like Microsoft Windows. The Penteview has a pictograph-based menu system for the front end, with an English legend under each image. The Polycom and Sony sit somewhere between the two.
Tandberg's menu system is quite extensive and at times we found locating a feature was not as intuitive as we would have liked, nevertheless it is still relatively easy to navigate.
The Penteview's menu system is the complete opposite of the Tandberg's: it's very basic with few options. It is therefore no surprise that configuring the Penteview is very straightforward and quick.
The Polycom's menu system uses "cute" icons and a very colourful menu system with each item configured with either a check box or a drop down options box. Many of the major menu items run to several pages of items to configure, the configurable options appear as extensive as the Tandberg. At times the user will find themselves searching for small items such as how to disable the annoying voice confirmation prompts, for example. Overall, however, the fresh and colourful menu system is probably more accessible to novice users than the dry Tandberg menus.
Finally, the Sony menu structure is quite similar to the Polycom's but lacking the cute colours and icons. Also, the Sony menu structure is not as extensive as either the Tandberg or Polycom but certainly allows the user to configure more options than the Penteview.
All five units featured cameras with motorised pan, tilt, and optical zoom. The Tandberg 990 and Polycom have the cameras integrated into the VC unit while the other three have independent cameras that can be conveniently positioned.
Camera presets are a common feature, which is the ability to preset camera positions and zoom settings for individuals around the conference table. This works fine in most static locations and as each member speaks in turn the "conference facilitator" would hit the preset to capture the speaker.
In cases where the situation is not quite as static, for example someone displaying a large product or outlining a concept on a whiteboard you may actually want to follow the action. Only the Tandberg T7000 has the ability to track the location of a speaker. This can even work well when everyone's sitting down, as the camera homes in on whoever is currently speaking without the need for anyone to tediously operate presets. The tracking algorithms are also quite clever: they won't desert the current speaker if someone at the table utters a word or two, but if they launch into a lengthy discourse, the camera will turn and home in on them.
All of the systems have the capability of controlling the remote camera, providing the feature is enabled at the remote site.
All the systems, with the exception of the Sony, feature separate omni-directional microphones and in most cases the cables are long enough to position the mic in the centre of a board table. The Polycom mics are unique in that they have an integrated mute button, although all the systems can easily be muted through the software. The Sony mic is fixed to the camera mount but optional microphones can be fitted if required.
Once installed and configured, all the units are all relatively easy to use, particularly once you have populated their online address books. Comparative Review Page 2
Picture in Picture (PIP) is standard on all the systems this can be configured to show your local and remote view with the former in the small PIP window. However, a second monitor can be added to the systems and dedicated to local and far views. The Tandberg 990 and Polycom units could only view the VC session on an NTSC or PAL monitor; the Sony can display via a PAL monitor or a PC monitor; the Tandberg T7000 has dual integrated monitors; and the Penteview also has a single integrated plasma display.
All the systems were capable of reaching at least 768Kbps across IP; the Tandberg T7000 for example could be configured for 3Mbps. For this reason, we decided to test each of the units at 768Kbps.
There is quite a difference in the multisite capabilities of the units. The Peteview Conference 2012 has no integrated multisite capability at all and to add this feature you must purchase a 6180 MultiPoint Controller for around US$22,900. Admittedly the 6180 MCU is quite a powerful unit and supports eight sites at 768Kbps or up to 16 sites at 384Kbps. While the Sony does not include MCU functionality as a standard feature, the unit does include the native capability and this can be realised by purchasing the MCU software upgrade. With the upgrade, the Sony's MCU capability is surprisingly good although we should note there are two software upgrade options, an H.320 MCU and an H.323 MCU, the latter is capable of supporting six sites at 384Kbps.
The Polycom is capable of four-site conference calls but the feature must be enabled in the unit by inputting a software registration key, which can be purchased from Polycom for an additional US$3299.
The Tandbergs both include an integrated MCU that is capable of four sites and one phone call simultaneously and these can be daisy chained for up to ten sites and four phone calls simultaneously.
However the 990's MPU is not activated on the standard unit and must, like the Polycom, be unlocked after paying an upgrade fee; the MCU can only be activated if the content streaming is also activated.
Both the 990 and T7000 support an impressive 768Kbps between the four sites, again over IP.
The lighting in our Lab is less than ideal but then again quite a few of the boardrooms I have been in were not great either. As a consequence, the cameras' auto exposure control had quite a workout.
The Tandberg T7000 undoubtedly had the best display quality, in part because the integrated widescreen LCDs have such a gorgeous image quality, and of course the codec has a lot to do with it as well. The Polycom's image quality was also good with colourful and correctly exposed images, the Sony was not far behind in this regard. And, while the Tandberg 990 and Penteview were still quite good, the auto exposure control left the images a little dull and flat when compared to the Polycom.
When the going got tough with a busy background or large degrees of movement the Sony and particularly the Penteview displayed the worst pixelation, while both the Tandbergs and the Polycom were affected to a lesser degree.
Audio quality from the integrated speakers of the Polycom and the Tandberg T7000 was excellent and while the Polycom features "Wideband Audio"Ã¢â‚¬"that is 14kHzÃ¢â‚¬"given the narrow range of human speech it does not translate to much of an advantage during a normal conference call. Also the feature is proprietary so you cannot take advantage of it on any of the other vendors' products.
Demonstrating content such as an Excel chart or a Power Point presentation is quite easy as is streaming an instructional tape or video over the session. However as previously noted only the Tandbergs streamed content natively, the Polycom and Sony require optional equipment to interface directly with a PC. Polycom VSX 7000
|Product||Polycom VSX 7000|
|Price||See Specifications table|
|Phone||02 9978 8000|
|Good network connectivity and protocol support, but ISDN optical extra. We experienced no connection problems with the other vendors' units.|
|Relatively inexpensive even when kitted up with BRI module and MCU functionality.|
|Price||See Specifications table|
|Phone||1800 017 766|
|Good network and protocol support, however ISDN is an optional extra. Interoperated successfully with the other units under test.|
|Can be upgraded to include PC content streaming and MCU functionality via a software upgrade should these be required.|
|The least expensive solution tested although a similarly configured Polycom is only slightly more expensive with a superior feature set.|
|Price||See Specifications table|
|Phone||02 9375 2401|
|Good network connectivity and protocol support in the basic unit. We experienced no problems running VC sessions with other vendors' products.|
|Good range of standard features and functionality.|
|Significantly more expensive than the Polycom when configured similarly.|
|Price||See Specifications table|
|Phone||02 9375 2401|
|Excellent network connectivity and protocol support in the basic unit. We experienced no problems running VC sessions with other vendors' products.|
|Excellent range of standard features and functionality.|
|A very impressive unit in terms of features, quality ans sheer presence but you certainly pay for the features.|
VPA Australia Zoom Networks Penteview Conference 2012
|Product||Zoom Networks Penteview Conference 2012|
|Price||See Specifications table|
|Phone||1800 018 835|
|Good network connectivity (but no ISDN) and good protocol support, connected successfully with the other systems under test.|
|No direct connection to a PC for content streaming and the MCU is expensive.|
|Quite inexpensive sans the plasma display but the features set is quite limited when compared to the other units tested.|
|Three-year premium service program includes helpdesk, and one hour user training.|
How We Tested
Does the videoconferencing system support a good variety of network connections and protocols?
Can the package grow to meet your needs, eg, multiple connections and easy interfacing with a PC?
The age-old comparison of price, performance, and features.
What warranties and service contracts are available? Can you get prompt service at a reasonable price?
Company: Marbeck and Call Talent Agency. This company has several branch offices and wants to set up videoconferencing capabilities between the branches and head office.
Approximate budget: Open, as long as the product pays for itself.
Requires:Ã‚Â Videoconferencing facilities to connect boardrooms in five offices.
Concerns: The majority of the company's offices are connected through IP based WAN/LAN and ISDN. The company may also need to hook into partners' systems, which may be from other vendors, so interoperability is also an issue.
Best solution: Only two units in their standard off-the-shelf configuration meets the company's requirements by providing both IP and ISDN connectivity and integrated MCU capabilities: the Tandberg 990 and Tandberg T7000.
The 990 supports up to four sites, but at relatively low bit rates when compared to the T7000 that supports up to five sites, both without resorting to daisy chaining.
In addition the Tandbergs both provide native content streaming while optional equipment must be purchased to enable this feature on the Polycom and Sony; the Penteview does not have the facility to connect directly to the VGA output of a PC.
For ISDN connectivity, the Polycom requires an optional four-port BRI module, the Sony an optional external six-port BRI unit and the Penteview does not support ISDN at all.
MCU functionality is available for all the vendors' products, in the case of the Polycom and Sony additional licences or software must be purchased to enable the feature and a dedicated MCU must be purchased for the Penteview.
To simplify matters all the units interoperated with one another without any issues.
The scenario does provide an open budget, but being realistic someone will be keeping a very sharp eye on the expenditure and will require pretty solid justification so let's configure the systems up and see where we get to.
|Polycom VSX 7000||US$6,599|
|4-port BRI Module||US$1,695|
|Total (approx, ex GST)||AU$15,150|
|PCS-B768 ISDN unit||AU$2,400|
|PCS-323M1 MCU software||AU$3,500|
|Total (ex GST)||AU$12,636|
Tandberg 990 Total (ex GST)
|Tandberg T7000 Total (ex GST)||AU$61,000|
|Zoom Penteview Conference 2012||US$12,999|
|Penteview 6180 MCU||US$22,900|
|Total (approx, ex GST)||AU$46,920|
The Sony PCS-1P is the least expensive solution for the scenario but we feel the Polycom VSX 7000, which is only AU$1,250 more expensive, offers a better feature set and definitely superior usability. If you want an inexpensive solution we would recommend the Polycom VSX 7000. On the other hand, if you really want to impress and you are not so worried about the satellite sites we would definitely suggest the Tandberg T7000 for the main boardroom and then either Polycom VSX 7000 or if the budget can stretch a little further the Tandberg 990 for the satellite sites.
Bear in mind thought that while you can mix units from various vendors successfully some proprietary features do not interoperate. An example of this is Polycom's Wideband Audio for example, but then again for most boardroom applications features such as this, and most other proprietary features, are not really necessary.
Videoconferencing at the office is one thing but how about being able to VC on the move? Admittedly the bandwidth of a standard digital phone is pretty minimal, try a maximum of 40Kbps for GPRS, so VC would be a pretty under whelming experience.
The new 3G network on the other hand promises up to 384Kbps, certainly adequate one would imagine for transferring reasonable quality video streams. We tried out the latest 3G phones from NEC, the e616 and e313, just to put the service to the test.
We were very surprised with the video quality and were able to experience a worthwhile video conference call between the two phones. Admittedly the frame rate is not stunning but as long as the movement was not too pronounced the image was quite smooth, certainly good enough for a -head to head" conversation.
Of the two phones, the e616 definitely had the better display quality; the e313 was always too dark and lacked contrast.
We should note that the 3G video phones are not particularly small and of course are going to be of little benefit until a significant portion of the population, or at least your close friends or business associates, adopt them.
Polycom VSX 7000
The Polycom works out as the second least expensive, once fully configured, but has a very impressive set of features and is really easy to set up and use. On top of that, it provides very good picture quality even in difficult lighting situations. It's expandable and versatile enough to suit most companies' needs.