Over the past few years, a number of vendors have introduced an array of videoconferencing systems with individual strengths and weaknesses-and wide-ranging price tags. Before you begin shopping for one, it's wise to have a clear idea of your goals for the system, what it takes to integrate it with your infrastructure and the potential effects on your network.
1. Know How You Will Use Your Videoconferencing System
Decide what role the system will play and who the users are. Will it be used for simple face-to-face meetings between business executives? If the system is for the occasional casual chat, you may not require high-definition resolution; it's far easier and cheaper to set up webcams and use some form of instant messaging application.
With how many locations will you connect simultaneously? Will those locales be outside of your network's firewall? What equipment will your correspondents use, and how tech-savvy are those users?
A standard webcam is unlikely to work out-of-the-box with a serious standards-based (H323) videoconferencing system unless you acquire a third-party client application. You can find the tools to make a webcam work in that manner, but they aren't for the faint of heart, and the resolution may disappoint you.
One option, necessary for some people but irrelevant to others, is sharing screenshots or presentations from a PC. Will you use the system collaboratively, with many parties communicating, or watching one central presentation (as in a higher-education environment where one professor instructs a number of students)? Or are these one-on-one conversations?
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Determine whether full high-definition (HD) video quality is necessary or desirable. If you intend to use the system frequently for face-to-face meetings, doling out the extra dough for an HD system is a wise idea. Full HD resolution does away with much of the tracing, or blurring of moving objects, common to traditional videoconferencing systems; HD makes long-distance meetings more intimate and natural feeling.
Even if you choose to go the "simple webcam" route, don't expect the process to go smoothly. As we discovered in reviewing a monitor with built-in webcam, each IM client has a different and bewildering user interface for its video features. AOL IM, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger and Skype all permit video calls. (Trillian supports videoconferences only with its premium, nonfree version.) Most needed tweaking (or a sharp kick) in a preferences pane, at least if you use Windows. (Macs are far easier in this regard.)
And that's when it works. Some IM clients worked fine with our equipment; others lost audio or only one person could see the video. Don't expect this to be easy. Help desk personnel should not expect nontechnical users to figure it out on their own.