Product Review: Videoconferencing: The BIG picture

Videoconferencing has been delivering on its promise for more than a decade with workhorse systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars, used Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines and had a quirkiness that required frequent attention.

Because of the high cost, it hasn't been widely dispersed.

That picture started to change three or four years ago with the dawn of the Web and the spread of its Internet Protocol (IP). Today it's an IP world, and most companies have an internal IP network that can run an emerging class of low-cost IP cameras, video cards and software.

Worldwide standards are emerging to guarantee that proliferating conference-capable desktops will talk to one another. H.323 is the key standard: it tells any IP device (including network routers and gateways) how to compress and transmit audio and video over a network that wasn't designed for it. The vision is a world in which small corporate teams can talk to and see one another and share their work without leaving their desks -- regardless of the distance between them.

But IP conferencing is too immature a technology to achieve its potential just yet. H.323 is neither widely nor consistently implemented. The Internet is too small a pipeline to handle the demands of TV-like video, as are many corporate networks (Internet 2 and more Asynchronous Transfer Mode and frame-relay WANs should address that problem). Tests show that videoconferencing suffers from the "plug-and-pray" installation nightmares that we thought disappeared with the Bush administration. I tested Intel's Proshare Video Systems and PictureTel's LiveLAN offering of affordable, corporate-class IP videoconferencing.

Intel ProShare Video System 500

Intel

http://www.intel.com.au

Price: $1599 inc.tax (approx.) or $4895 (for a pre-installed unit)Ipex ITG -- sole Australian distributor of ProShareIpex: (02) 9209 6666ProShare and LiveLAN are a combination of Peripheral Component Interconnect cards, camera, headset and software. But they differ in two big ways: ProShare can connect over LANs and ISDN, and it relies more heavily on high-end Intel Pentium II processors.

LiveLAN offloads those functions to the card, which PictureTel says improves performance. Intel says its CPU-centric approach lets users improve performance by upgrading the chip.

Like most desktop products, ProShare comes with collaboration software (Microsoft's popular NetMeeting) for sharing applications, chat, marking a whiteboard and transferring files. It took four hours on the phone with Intel to get a "stable" system.

Despite potential setup problems, ProShare is a viable solution -- especially for companies with a mix of ISDN and LAN connections and a large base of Pentium IIs.

LiveLAN

PictureTel

http://www.picturetel.com.au

(02) 9978 8000

Price: $2538 (inc.tax)

LiveLAN mimics ProShare but offers more heavy-duty conferencing features, such as its 330 NetConference server for eight-point conferences ($22,872 -- no tax applicable) and links to PictureTel's higher-end systems. The only downside is that LiveLAN lacks built-in ISDN and costs more than ProShare on the stand-alone package front.

However, LiveLAN's user interface offers a better compromise between power and simplicity than ProShare, which leaves too many questions unanswered. Additionally, LiveLAN's collaboration software, LiveShare Plus, looks nothing like NetMeeting but is compatible with it.

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