- ✓High-quality camera with built-in microphone and CPU
- ✓software can cope with NAT routers.
- ✕No support for third-party software or dial-up users.
At a whopping £399 (ex. VAT), you'd expect Polyspan's ViaVideo conferencing camera to be rather special. It certainly looks superior -- if you can remember the phaser featured in the original version of Star Trek, you have a pretty good picture of the camera unclipped from its tilting base.
On top, there's a decent-quality microphone under a couple of sculpted holes. Alternatively, a headset mic can be plugged into a 3.5mm jack on the back of the camera. The same socket can also be set to output audio, either to your sound card's line-in socket using the supplied cable, or directly to a set of headphones (not supplied). The USB and power sockets also live at the rear. Power comes from a 12-volt supply roughly two-thirds the size of the camera.
At the front, just above the lens, is a focus wheel. To the right of the lens the three-way switch acts as combined lens shield and on, off or audio-only switch. A relatively large, high-quality lens provides a good balance between providing a wide field of view without facial close-ups bulging unflatteringly.
Cool looks and a combined microphone aside, it's the built-in processor that separates the ViaVideo from other USB cameras. This takes care of the H.323 audio and video compression, which means there's less for the PC to do. And because it also handles white balance, contrast and brightness, there's no fiddling around before you're up and running. On the audio side, the camera efficiently takes care of noise suppression and echo cancellation.
This is usually transparent to the user, except when camera starts up. First the software uploads a program to the camera (which takes a few seconds), and in less than perfect lighting the first 10 or so seconds of images are sometimes a mess of artefacts while the camera's CPU expends all its power getting to grips with the departure from its natural environment -- a strip-lit office.
In some conditions, such as a mix of incandescent and daylight, skin tones look rather unhealthy. Darker environments, like many homes, can leave pictures on the gloomy side. Aside from a low-light mode that helps a little, there are no other manual controls.
Unlike other cameras, the ViaVideo unit will only work with its own software, which is supplied for Windows 9x and 2000. This software also requires Microsoft's NetMeeting to be installed. It will talk to other H.323 clients like NetMeeting, but insists on 32Kbit/s as a minimum, so it won't to talk to modem users. The ViaVideo software 'borrows' NetMeeting's T.120-compatible collaboration tools -- whiteboard, text chat, application sharing (except under Windows 2000) and file transfer. It also includes an address book that provides easy connection to all other Internet-connected Polyspan users via an ILS server.
The ViaVideo software uses a non-standard screen-based interface, which means that options must be accessed via several other screens. This is slightly irritating if you're more used to pull-down menus and dialog boxes. The noisy animated splash screen, complete with whooshing noises, also quickly grates. Despite these niggles, the software is very user friendly, helped by clear and useful animations.
The ViaVideo software's support for NAT (Network Address Translation) routers like Windows Internet Connection Sharing and firewalls is where it really scores. Without an H.323 gateway, video conferencing with H.323 over NAT is impossible. ViaVideo solves the problem with an option to auto-discover and insert the external IP address into the H.323 data stream. It also allows ports to be specified, making it much easier to configure firewalls. This is enough to solve problems that defeat its rivals.
For the money you would expect a paper manual, not just the supplied quick-start guide. Nonetheless, the PDF version is friendly but lacks information in places.
ViaVideo is clearly not a solution for the home, and its inability to talk to modem users may put some businesses off too. ViaVideo users are also stuck with Polyspan's software, further limiting its flexibility.
That said, ViaVideo's day-to-day ease of use, NAT router support and impressive image quality (in an office, at least) set it apart from most other video conferencing solutions. If you've got a fat corporate wallet and you don't need to talk to dial-up users, it's well worth considering.