- Integrated system saves space
- high-quality video compression
- customisable user interface
- Poor build quality
- high quality only possible when communicating with up-to-date systems
- monitor is analogue only
Regular users of video conferencing may welcome the VSX 3000, an integrated LCD monitor and conferencing system. Designed to save space on the desktop, it integrates the functions of a full-size video conferencing system into a standard monitor form factor. It aims to offer higher-quality conferencing than PC-based systems, but this will depend on the other party’s equipment being of a similar standard.The VSX 3000 includes an H.323-compliant video conferencing system that can use ISDN or an IP network. Up to four ISDN Basic Rate Interfaces (BRIs) can be used, or 100Mbps Ethernet is provided as a network connection. Note that the BRIs are presented as separate RJ-45 connectors, which is convenient if your ISDN is provided that way, but where a fractional Primary Rate Interface (PRI) is your ISDN connection, you’ll have to go through a PBX or some other equipment to connect.
Design & features
The VSX 3000 is based around a 17in. 1,280 by 1,024 TFT LCD monitor. It has a single analogue VGA input, and a stereo audio input. The quality of the monitor is generally good, but not outstanding -- we were a little worried about image quality until we found the 'sharpness' control in the menu, which was set at less than 100 (anything below 100 makes the image from your PC fuzzy, so we’re not sure why this adjustment is provided). On top of the monitor is the camera and microphones for the video conferencing system. The camera is mounted in a simple tilt-and-swivel head, which you move by hand. The whole unit is powered from a single external power supply, although there are separate power switches for the monitor and the video conferencing system. There’s also a standby button for the monitor on the front panel, with an LED indicator for monitor status. The indicator for the video conferencing system is a multi-colour LED on the camera. Unfortunately we’re not very impressed with the build quality of the VSX 3000. The camera and microphones are stuck onto the top of the unit with double-sided sticky tape. When we were unpacking the unit we nearly broke this section off accidentally. To focus the camera you have to adjust a wheel on the bottom of the camera head. However, if you have the monitor in a normal position where it’s tilted back slightly to face the user, the focus wheel will be difficult to access. We feel the camera itself has too wide an angle -- sat an arm’s length away from the monitor, you’ll fill less than a quarter of the available image. However, if you’re trying to get two people sat side-by-side into the image, you’d need this angle, but this doesn’t fit with the idea of the VSX 3000 as a personal video conferencing system. You can tilt the monitor backwards and forwards, but the base doesn’t swivel at all, which isn’t good ergonomics. It’s also not height adjustable, which means taller people may well end up looking down on the screen, which can cause poor posture. This can be solved by stacking the VSX 3000 on top of a stand or a box, but many LCD monitors now have height adjustable pedestals. The monitor part of the VSX 3000 isn’t integrated with the controls of the video conferencing system, which presents a couple of problems. If you’re in monitor mode when a call comes in, you’ll hear the ringing tone, but you’ll get no visual indication of the call, nor will the monitor switch sources automatically. You wouldn’t necessarily want this last option to be enabled, but if it were available and configurable you’d at least get the choice. The video conferencing system has an internal ringer, separate from the monitor’s speakers, that you can use as a call alert. This can be turned off, but if you do this you’ll get no notification of an incoming call while you’re in monitor mode, so it’s best left on. You control the video conferencing system using a remote control. Again, due to the lack of integration with the monitor, there are no conferencing controls on the front panel of the monitor, so you’ll have to use the remote control even if you’re sat within arm’s length of the VSX 3000.
Performance and usability
Using the VSX 3000 to make and receive calls is simple enough, especially if you’ve created entries in the directory. Either enter the IP address or ISDN number of the person you’d like to call, or select them from the directory and hit Call on the remote control, and the call is placed. If the party you’re calling rejects the call, a box pops up to tell you so. You can customise the user interface even further, so that only preset numbers can be called, or to hide some of the options on the screen. Since the VSX 3000 is H.323-based, you can use it to call virtually all hardware- and software-based video conferencing systems on the market today. We were able to make calls to our review unit from NetMeeting on another PC, although the quality of the images in this setup is limited by the quality of your Webcam. We were supplied with a separate system by PolyCom to accompany the VSX 3000 for this review -- it wasn’t possible to upgrade our existing video conferencing system to the same standard. Calling this produced far better quality results, but this may not be the case if the person you’re calling has an older video conferencing system, either from Polycom or another manufacturer. The quality of the images and sound when calling using the VSX 3000 will vary significantly with the equipment at the other end of the call: having a better camera and more powerful compression than other systems isn’t going to help you see the other party any better, since that relies on the quality of their system. Similarly, although the VSX 3000 may support the latest standards in video conferencing, it has to negotiate with the remote equipment to find a standard they can both use. We found that when calling the other test system supplied by PolyCom we got excellent sound quality and good image quality in both directions. There was still some blockiness to the images, especially when there was large amounts of movement in the picture. We were using a 100Mbps IP network between the two systems, but it was occasionally possible to see the effects of network disruption in the picture. Using ISDN between the two systems will give more consistent results, even though the overall bandwidth may be less. Calling between the VSX 3000 and a desktop PC with NetMeeting was a different matter: the images were generally of a lower standard, although the image seen on the PC (send from the VSX 3000) was far better than that sent by the PC, which is partly caused by a lower-quality camera. Although the camera on the VSX 3000 isn’t motorised, the system does support remote control of moving cameras at the far end of the link. This includes preset camera positions programmed into the remote video conferencing equipment so that, for instance, you can zoom in on a particular participant in a call. You’re reminded of which camera you’re trying to control by an icon in the top right-hand corner of the screen. You can also have your own video in a picture-in-picture window In contrast with calling, configuring and managing the VSX 3000 using its on-screen menus is somewhat tortuous. The problem is navigating the pages. Using the cursor buttons on the remote control to move between the various pages in the setup screens takes quite a while -- especially since some sections can be several pages long -- and to get out of a section requires you to go back through all the previous pages. You can use the 'Home' button on the remote to go directly back to the dialling page, but you then have to jump back into the menu system. Fortunately you don’t have to do it that way, since the VSX 3000 supports Web-based management. Once the unit is connected to the network and has an IP address, you can point a browser at it and do the more complicated configuration that way. This also means that IT staff can change the configuration of a VSX 3000 that’s in a conference room or someone’s office without needing to go there in person -- useful if the unit in question is at a remote site. You can also configure the VSX 3000 using telnet, if you wish, but on our review model we had a constant stream of notifications of an error -- one that did exist -- while we were trying to use it. This made it difficult to use manually, but it may be useful for scripted administration of the unit. All of the administrative interfaces can be protected by a single password to prevent unauthorised use, although the local user can still change certain settings -- camera brightness and auto answer, for instance -- even if a password is set.
The quality of the sound and images using the VSX 3000 is higher than you’d get with a PC-based setup, but you do lose the ability to use other collaborative tools, such as desktop sharing, whiteboarding and file transfer. It’s also quite expensive if it’s not going to be used frequently as a video conferencing system. Our concerns over the build quality lead us to advise against using the VSX 3000 in a public place or where it’s likely to get moved around a lot, but it should be fine if used by a single person in their office.