These days, any computer with a webcam -- and most current tablets and smartphones -- can be a front-end to services that offer low-cost or free videoconferencing functionality. Services such as Skype and Google+ are offering alternatives to conferencing solutions that used to cost companies thousands of dollars.
Slideshow: Best Desktop Video Tools
In fact, many of these services have moved away from being formally installed apps, and can be invoked from most any kind of hardware client or OS platform through its browser. Some use Flash to run entirely in-browser; some deliver a binary executable on-demand through the browser, which runs as-is without needing to be installed; some still use a local client.
Check out our video reviews
In order to offer a better idea of how each of these teleconferencing applications worked, we've included a video that highlights the product's best (and worst) aspects. You'll find the video at the bottom of each review.
Most of the systems profiled here have many essential features in common, even at their most basic level, such as text chat (as well as voice/video chat) or the ability to share documents, applications or the entire desktop among conference attendees.
Features available in the more advanced tiers include the ability to record conferences, support for large numbers of people (that is, more than five or ten) and high-definition video. In all cases, there's a moderator who has control over the conference room behavior (such as who has the floor or who can show his or her desktop to the rest of the members) using a central console.
Prices in these formerly expensive services have changed over the last couple of years. Entry-level pricing now starts at anywhere from $8 to $40 a month. Many companies provide trial periods or free usage tiers (albeit with some features missing).
I looked at seven major offerings, ranging from free adjuncts to popular social-networking systems to products with enterprise-level tiers; some needing a local client, some not.
To try them out, I held test videoconferences, using three participants on different platforms -- both Windows and OS X, whenever possible. We looked at how the apps were deployed and how they were performed, and also for the presence of auxiliary features, such as the logging of discussions or tools for moderators and presenters.
While they may not be appropriate for some high-end uses, most of these services can offer solid, basic videoconferencing that can allow you to keep in touch with your remote colleagues and friends -- and perhaps even get some work done.
How to record your conference
Not all conference apps or services have the built-in ability to record your meeting. If that's the case with your chosen service, you'll have to make use of a third-party app to record either just the audio or audio and video from the desktop.
Bear in mind that recording video from the desktop is going to generate big files. If you just want to record audio only, which will be a big space-saver, any number of programs can do this. Windows' own Sound Recorder is rather meager, but the open-source audio app Audacity has a better range of features.
Other programs can capture all activity on the desktop as a video stream, no matter what applications are running. Camtasia is one of the best-known such programs, but at $299 it might be a bit steep for some individuals.
Free alternatives do exist, and I used one such program, CamStudio, to generate the video captures created for this article. CamStudio has its own limitations, though -- the resulting files can be huge for only a few minutes of capture, and capture files over 2GB sometimes come out broken.
Some third-party apps work in concert with a given service or program. Evaer, for instance, is designed to record Skype voice and video calls. It runs as a separate application, but uses a Skype plugin to synchronize the recording actions so calls can be recorded automatically.
Free 30-day trial; plans include $45/month/host (annual), $55/month/host (monthly), or $0.32/minute/user (pay-per-use) Platforms: Any platform with Flash capabilities, iOS, Android
A big selling point for Adobe Connect is consistency across platforms. It's been authored entirely in Flash, so it's functionally identical on both Macs and Windows PCs (and, in theory, any other Flash-supporting platform).
The downside to having the whole application authored in Flash is occasionally running afoul of the limits of Flash's implementations in a given browser. The Adobe Connect Add-In, used for screen sharing (where one participant shares an active window on her desktop with everyone in the meeting) doesn't work by default in Chrome because of that browser's heavily secured implementation of Flash. You either have to change some internal Chrome settings or use another browser (such as Firefox).
Adobe Connect's "prepare mode" lets you change how the on-screen panels appear to the other participants.
Adobe Connect users are divided into three groups -- hosts, presenters and participants -- each with its built-in levels of privilege. (A host is someone who has complete control over the meeting; a presenter is selected by a host to talk or show slides.) The panels or "pods" displayed on-screen -- the video windows, the attendee list, the chat box, etc. -- are all replicated on each user's end. Pods are available for tasks like taking polls from the group, logging notes from just the presenters or the whole group, uploading files to be shared out to everyone, or taking written questions from participants in a moderated fashion.
The way pods are laid out on the screen is crucial, since everyone else in the conference sees the exact layout the presenter chooses. Icons down the right side of the screen let you select a few different pre-created panel arrangements: Sharing, Discussion and Collaboration. If you want to create your own layout for re-use, you can enter "Prepare Mode," which lets you edit the panel arrangements on your end; changes are not made live to everyone else until you say so.
The actual video chat portion of Connect has many of the features I've come to expect: follow-focus (switching the video feed so that whoever is speaking is given prominence), administrative control over cameras and microphones, etc. Unfortunately, my test of Connect seemed to be highly sensitive to geography: there were several seconds of lag between a speaker in New York and another in California, and audio and video tended to drift out of sync.
Connect's screen sharing function lets you pick a given app, window or desktop to share to the group, although it's one-way only -- you can't give control to another user. You can, however, place a shared item on a whiteboard and let others annotate it, which isn't a bad compromise. Some document types, like PowerPoint presentations, can be uploaded to the Connect server and shared out without the presenter needing the app for that document type.
Connect scores for its presenter- and presentation-oriented features, and for running on any Flash-supported client, although its video quality underperformed during my trial.
Adobe Connect's panel organization and sharing functions.
Free 14-day trial; $49/month for up to 30 attendees, $79/month for up to 50 attendees, enterprise pricing available Platforms: Windows, OS X
A product of Brother, the company best known for its printers and multifunction devices, OmniJoin comes billed as "online meetings that don't feel like online meetings." OmniJoin isn't that radical a reinvention of online conferencing, but it works pretty well, barring a couple of hassles.
There is no free tier; the basic version is $49 per month per host, but that edition is pretty well equipped. Up to 30 attendees can join, with up to 12 of them sharing 720p camera video streams. There is no limit on the length or frequency of meetings, either. Higher tiers raise the number of allowed attendees, the number of video streams and video quality (up to 1080p).
OmniJoin includes the ability to record the meeting's video and audio to a local file.
OmniJoin currently offers Windows and OS X clients; there are, as yet, no mobile clients. OmniJoin claims to support high-end videoconferencing hardware (e.g., Sony PTZ cameras, ClearOne audio systems) for those who have access to this equipment.
The Windows client uses Office 2010's visual styles (ribbon menus, etc.). I found a number of useful features. Most prominent is the built-in ability to record meetings -- actually, the ability to record all client screen activity -- and save them to an MP4 file. Another handy feature: The ability to import a Microsoft PowerPoint document directly into the chat client and share it with the other attendees.
Other tools include a whole mini-suite of bandwidth- and network-assessment tools, which can be used to figure out if a balky chat is because of your computer, your connection or some other issue. Screen and application sharing is also available, and a shared application (or screen) is distinguished by a bright green border and a dedicated palette of tools for annotation. The quality of the visuals for the shared application can also be ramped up or down for people on faster or slower connections.
The biggest gotcha with using OmniJoin, at least in this version, is the way meetings are configured by default to use a dial-in phone bridge, not VoIP, for audio. This isn't hard to address -- you just need to edit the default settings for your meetings on OmniJoin's website -- but it was a bit perplexing, and it would have been nice to have control over such things from within the client app itself.
OmniJoin's a solid product if you're willing to live with a couple of host configuration quirks. Especially useful are the ability to record conferences locally and to share PowerPoint files without additional tools.
OmniJoin offers two audio options, sharing features and a way to check your bandwidth.
Free basic tier (3 users); paid plans start at $24/month Platforms: Desktop browsers that are Java-capable, Android, iOS, BlackBerry
Cisco is known mainly for its networking products, including VoIP and conferencing solutions. WebEx, which was bought by Cisco in 2007, emphasizes sharing and collaboration tools -- whiteboarding, remote control and, of course, multiuser video chat.
The free tier for WebEx gives you a good taste of how the service works and what's offered, even if the feature set is minimal. You're allowed three people per meeting with one host, standard-definition video, and toll-call dial-in (no toll-free). Interactivity is limited to whiteboarding, document- and desktop-sharing, and a shared uploadable file repository that holds up to 250MB.
Whiteboarding is one of many functions that can be shared with other WebEx participants.
WebEx Meetings uses Java to download and run an appropriate app for the Windows or OS X platform that you're using (there have been some issues with OS X Lion). There are also apps for iOS, Android and BlackBerry devices, although the capabilities vary. For example, iOS users can participate in two-way video, but Android folks can only do this on a tablet, not on a phone.
Normally, in a group chat, the focus for the main video window follows whoever is speaking. However, a "Who do you want participants to see?" function lets you override this and direct focus to someone specific.
Application and desktop sharing is quite flexible -- you can share a specific monitor/desktop, a specific file (either locally or already uploaded to WebEx's servers) or a running application. Shared apps have easy-to-see icons next to their minimize buttons, and when you share your entire desktop, there is a green border around the edges of the display.
WebEx has an integrated meeting recording function, which stores all recorded files on WebEx's servers by default. There's no way to record locally, but I actually liked the remote-storage function: that way, I could record all I liked and then fetch only the files I needed. This also saved me the trouble of having to upload the recording somewhere for distribution to others: With WebEx, all you need to do is send them a link.
The "Premium 8" paid plan ($24) lets you have a meeting with a maximum of eight people, upgrades video quality to HD, allows toll-free dial-ins, raises the file storage allotment from 250MB to 1GB and adds remote control and professional support. More advanced tiers, including support for up to 500 people, are available for a custom price quote.
One useful bonus feature for paying users is the ability to have the WebEx system call participants directly on their own phones, so people don't have to dial in themselves.
A useable free tier, multiple client support and session-recording functions are just a few of many things that make WebEx Meetings worthwhile.
WebEx offers two ways to follow a conversation, and offers remote control and whiteboarding.
$49/month or $468/year for up to 25 attendees; free 30-day trial Platforms: Windows, OS X, iOS, Android
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