How we tested Web-based conferencing services

We set up a variety of meetings on each of the services and then connected via different desktops, browsers, and mobile clients to see how each displayed the meeting content and handled the audio connection.

We used two desktops: a MacBook running OS 10.6.8 and a Dell running Windows 7 Professional 32-bit. In addition, we also used two smartphones: an iPhone 4 running iOS v5.1 and a LG Nitro HD Android phone running v2.3.5.

We used the built-in cameras on the phones and the Mac, and the Logitech BCC950 Conference Cam for Windows. For each conference, we uploaded different kinds of documents, turned on screen sharing, whiteboard annotation and remote control (where available). We examined each service for its features, usability, post-conferencing reporting and analysis, and pricing strategy.

Features:

A big part of using any of these services is how feature-rich they will be. There are four specific sections that we examined.

1. Mobile and desktop clients. All of the services with the exception of InterCall and Vyew offer separate mobile clients. Of the remaining services, Webex was the only one that required iOS v5: the others worked with iOS version 4 or version 3 in the case of Join.Me. Some of the services also support BlackBerries (Adobe Connect and Cisco Webex) and the two Microsoft services also support Windows Phone mobiles. With some services, they limit the features that are in the browser- or desktop-based apps, such as being able to present or initiate a conference from the mobile client. For Adobe, you don't need to download their desktop app for being a presenter; for Join.Me, you do.

2. Pre-conference services. These products can be used to host larger meetings, such as a webinar for several dozen or hundreds of participants. For these kinds of situations, we looked at what tools are available to set up a particular Web page that could be used to promote the meeting at a later date and sign up participants. Some of the services (such as Lync, InterCall, GotoMeeting and Join.Me) can be used to schedule a meeting from within Outlook, and can send .ICS calendar attachments via email that can be used to more easily remind you of an upcoming meeting, and include the various audio connection information details.

3. During the conference. The biggest difference among the eight services is in terms of what kinds of things that can be shared during the conference. This includes being able to show your entire desktop or limit the shared region to a defined area or to sharing a particular application. Each service also has the ability to create a group text chat window that participants can type in their backchannel comments or questions for the presenter. Some offer remote control of the desktop, and others have live webcam video, freehand whiteboarding, and tools such as interactive surveys or polls that are typically found on the higher-end webinar services.

There are other distinguishing features worth noting. First is the limit on the number of concurrent participants for each service. Some services offer different higher-cost options and claim to support larger audiences. (I did not have any way to stress test these claims, however.) Second is the ability to switch among multiple presenters during the conference, so that multiple people can share their screens or their apps with the group. Finally is the perceived video quality of the connection as well as the response time or any noticeable lag as your presenter's desktop changes (such as during a PowerPoint presentation, for example). Some services promise "HD quality video" but I have no idea how to measure that clarity, although GoToMeeting seemed to have the best webcam video quality of the set.

4. Audio options. The biggest difference among the eight services is in how they handle the audio portion of the conference. Each service supports at least one of the three methods that include making a separate telephone call using a public switched network phone number, using the built-in audio on your computer or mobile device and sharing over an IP connection, or calling you at a specified number when it is time to start the conference. Some, such as InterCall and Adobe, charge extra for making the calls or GoToMeeting who charges extra for using a toll-free call-in number. Others use regular phone numbers that each participant will have to pay on their own to call in.

Usability:

I looked at various usability aspects of each service, both from the perspective of a meeting participant as well as the presenter. For the ad hoc use case, having the ability to be quickly connected is critical, and for the other use cases, the ease of advance scheduling a meeting is also important. If you use one of these services as your principle Web conferencing tool, do you have to download their Java or Flash software for each meeting or can you install a desktop app to make the connection with less preparation? Finally, I examined how you navigate around the conference windows and participate in the conference itself.

Post-conference reports and analysis:

For the products that produce a recorded archive, I looked at how complete and usable the archive is. Both Webex (see the screenshot below) and GoToMeeting make it hard to collect the meeting recordings, the uploaded files, and any text chat transcripts for any particular meeting. Connect has a much better solutions, and if this is important then consider their services. Connect in particular excels in post-meeting analysis that you can use for follow-up marketing and lead generation purposes, for example. They also are the only service I tested that can actually show you who was paying attention during the conference in one of their reports: as a professional speaker, that is very useful information to improve my future Webinars.

Cost/benefit:

My final metric was looking at what each service costs and how they break down the various pricing levels of their plans. Three of the services offer completely free plans (Webex, Join.Me, and Vyew) with limited options. If cost is paramount, start with these services first and see if you can live with their limitations.

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Tags unified communicationsDellNetworkinglogitechvideoconferencingdesktop videoconferencing

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