Videoconferencing for every budget

We shortlist the best videoconferencing solutions for SMB

Polycom video conferencing telepresence visual communications

Polycom video conferencing telepresence visual communications

Polycom RealPresence Experience (RPX)

The Polycom telepresence suite looked more lifelike than Cisco's and is my top pick for large companies that require the absolute best quality for their virtual business meetings.

I tested the Polycom RealPresence Experience (RPX) High Definition 400 Series in San Jose. Interestingly, it uses 720p video instead of the 1080p video used in Cisco's telepresence suite, but it also runs at 60 frames per second rather than Cisco's 30 fps. At 60 frames, hand motions and body movements were just a hair more realistic than they were in the Cisco telepresence suite. (I also tested the Polycom's 1080p setting, which runs at 30 frames per second; although it looked more colorful and crisp, it was not quite as realistic for hand movements and other gestures.)

Color quality, which is extremely important for a realistic extension of one conference table to another, was outstanding. One participant had a blue shirt that popped brightly on screen. And the camera position is perfect for face-to-face meetings: I could look right into the eyes of a presenter and he looked right back at me. (The Cisco telepresence suite was just slightly off in this regard.)

The Polycom RPX 400 Series uses four 48-in. rear-projection displays connected in one long 16-foot video wall with barely perceptible seams between them. (There is also an 8-foot video wall option.) Polycom does an excellent job of syncing the lighting in each suite with the cameras, which are custom-made by Sony for the telepresence suite. This means there is rarely any flickering or lighting differences between rooms.

Each suite has four 17-in. LCD monitors mounted into the conference table itself; you can plug in a laptop, which appears in your local LCD screen and in the other conference rooms, so you can share your screen with another room. (The "talking head" video of the meeting participants, however, is always only shown on the large rear-projection screens.)

For a yearly fee, you can have Polycom schedule meetings for your company and monitor the rooms to make sure everyone is connected -- there's an extra webcam in each suite for admins to monitor meetings. Polycom does not adhere to quite the same rigid room specifications as Cisco, though. For example, Polycom doesn't require the exact same paint for each room.

Like Cisco's CTS, Polycom's RPX works with Outlook and Notes for scheduling meetings easily. However, Cisco's back-end infrastructure is, predictably, much more robust than Polycom's. In my tests, the Cisco video links were always smooth. With Polycom, I noticed a few minor glitches with its video codec (the software used to compress video for network distribution).

On the other hand, Elliot Gold, president of videoconferencing consultancy TeleSpan Publishing, gives Polycom high marks for interoperability: "Today, the advantage Polycom has is that they are totally standards-based and interoperable with not just new systems shipped today, but legacy systems shipped and installed over the past decade."

Pricing for Polycom suites is generally higher than Cisco telepresence. The 400 Series room, with a maximum attendance of 18 people, costs about US$600,000. For a room with two screens in an 8-foot video wall for about four people, the cost is about US$450,000 per room. Monthly maintenance and support costs vary; the fees are based on the system you select and the support option you choose, from light support for major problems to full support for every feature. Polycom also offers lease arrangements for telepresence suites and says the pricing varies by the exact model and service offerings.

Bottom line

Who should consider telepresence suites? Gold says these products are geared for the upper echelon of large enterprises that do not need portability and can afford the costs of both the HD video equipment and the room customizations.

Telepresence offerings "represent the very high end of the visual communications experience," adds Jain. "If an enterprise has the budget, network and bandwidth, immersive telepresence can deliver a stellar communication experience with a quick ROI."

Whatever your budget, there's a videoconferencing option that could benefit your business, from firing up Yahoo for a quick chat with a colleague, to using a room-based modular system for a product demo or holding a formal 20-person meeting with executives in the Singapore office.

John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about consumer and enterprise technology. He's written more than 2,500 articles in the last ten years.

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