7 low-cost videoconferencing services: Which is best for your meeting?
Remote colleagues and friends are the norm today. We look at 7 online services that help you keep in touch.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
There's little question Citrix's GoToMeeting is aimed at professionals. Your first clue is the pricing: There is no free version. It starts at $49 per month for up to 25 participants; after that, there are a variety of other plans that increase the number of attendees and add a variety of features.
Most of the programs in this roundup organize their multiple components -- the videos of participants, control panels, etc. -- in a single window. GoToMeeting has multiple floating windows, which can be immensely distracting. Webcams and video chat take place in one detached desktop window; the control panel for the meeting (which sports a lot of options) is in a second; and a third little floating panel holds icons for common functions like whiteboarding or camera/microphone control. The main control panel is divided into subpanels that can be expanded or collapsed so you can tuck away uneeeded options, but overall it feels a lot more cluttered and busy than it should.
GoToMeeting offers a number of nice features, including dial-in support for voice chats so you can include people who only have a phone; GoToMeeting provides access via a toll or (for an extra fee) toll-free number. Finally, there's a slew of useful features: the ability to share your screen with other participants or let them take control of your system, the ability to schedule meetings directly through the GoToMeeting system, and the ability to record session activity to a file. GoToMeeting users can join in from a Mac, Windows PC, Android or iOS device, and meetings can be started up ad-hoc or scheduled ahead of time.
One of the outstanding features GoToMeeting offers is HDFaces, which allows up to six 640-x-480-pixel camera streams on a participant's screen at once. You need at least 700Kbps bandwidth to participate in an HDFaces session, which makes it a dodgy proposition for those using flaky public Wi-Fi or a 3G network. The meeting organizer has control over whose cameras are shown in an HDFaces session, so that if you have a meeting with, say, ten people, you can focus on three or four of them at a time -- not just to save bandwidth, but also to preserve the focus of the meeting.
Other really worthwhile features include the screen sharing and annotation functions, which includes whiteboarding. I liked how the latter allows you to draw not just in a confined area, but can be used to annotate any shared window or item on your desktop.
GoToMeeting does natively support recording meetings, but it's limited. For example, the audio of a meeting is recordable, and you can capture the contents of shared screens and presentations, but isolated feeds from participants cannot be recorded except as part of capturing a shared screen. On Windows PCs, meetings can be recorded in the Windows Media Player video format, or with GoToMeeting's proprietary lossless G2M2 codec. Don't pick this last option if you have Mac users: the G2M2 codec is only available for Windows.
GoToMeeting is a useful, higher-end conferencing service. However, its quality video and interactivity features are hampered somewhat by its limited conference-recording function and crowded user interface.
Google+ (G+ for short) may not be the Facebook killer Google wanted it to be, but one of its handier auxiliary features is Hangouts. This group-conferencing function allows up to ten G+ users to chat in real time via camera, microphone or text.
Aside from a G+ account and a webcam/mike, you'll need either a browser plugin (available for just about all late-model browsers) or the G+ client app for phones or tablets. Those who don't have cameras can be invited to participate via phone, and everyone in the hangout can contribute via text chat. Note that text chats in Hangouts are not saved in your Gmail chat history for those contacts, so you'll have to log those conversations manually if you need them.
Setting up a Hangout is straightforward enough: go to https://plus.google.com/hangouts or click on the Hangouts button if you're already in Google+, log in if you haven't already, select "Start A Hangout" at top right, and choose people to hang out with from your G+ contact list. Up to nine people can take part in a Hangout.
The chat interface places everyone's talking heads in a row along the bottom, with the speaker taking up most of the display, and a text-chat panel at left. As with Skype, Hangouts switches the video feed so that whoever is speaking is given prominence. Also, as with Skype, a built-in screen sharing function lets you pick an active window on your desktop and share it with everyone in the hangout. (It's one-way sharing -- the others can look, but not change anything.)
Hangouts can be augmented with one of a slew of specialized apps -- essentially plugins for the chat experience, which run on the server side. For example, the YouTube app lets you play back a YouTube-hosted video for everyone in the chat (although Google strongly discourages rebroadcasting copyright content this way unless you own it). Plugins for Google Docs and the SlideShare presentation-hosting site allow documents hosted with those services to be browsed collectively, and in the case of Google Docs case, edited collaboratively as well.
Hangouts also has a number of interesting features of its own. For example, Hangouts On Air lets you record a hangout and re-use it, or broadcast it to any number of viewers. (This is an advantage over, say, Skype, which doesn't have its own recording feature.) Note that you can't use Hangouts On Air to rebroadcast a pre-recorded YouTube video.
Another useful function called Ringback can be used to reconvene a hangout if attendees missed it. And if you're feeling slightly silly, Google Effects uses face recognition and motion tracking to let you overlay goofy accessories like hats or mustaches onto peoples' faces.
If you and your associates have Google+ accounts, this is a fine way to do group video. The external add-ons have real value as well.
I tested a preview version of Microsoft Lync, the chat-and-communications component of Microsoft Office 365 (since then, the final version has been released). Lync has a competitive feature set, but the stability of the service and the way the features were implemented when I tested it left a lot to be desired.
The first step with using Lync for group videoconferencing is to set up an account with Office 365, which is a bit of administrative overhead all by itself. Users and conference leaders alike both need to have accounts, which follow the format firstname.lastname@example.org. The Lync client's login interface has a misleading "e-mail address" as well as "user ID" entry field; both needed to be filled out with the same onmicrosoft.com address.
If you'd rather host Lync on your own hardware, instead of via Microsoft's Office 365 service, a standalone server version of Lync's back end is also available.
Lync clients exist for both Windows PCs and Macs (as well as iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices), but the Windows and OS X clients are totally dissimilar. The former uses the Windows 8 "Modern UI" visual style, but the latter doesn't even look like a native Mac app, which made it difficult to figure out how things worked. Whiteboarding didn't seem to work at all on the Mac client, for instance, despite repeated attempts. Navigating the UI on the Windows side was also tricky, because the behavior of many of the controls wasn't always clear.
Most of the in-conference functions are similar to what's available in the other applications I tested: text chat (either to individuals or the group); automatic focus following, so that whoever's speaking takes prominence in the video feed; local recording of a chat; interactive desktop or application sharing; quick group polls; and the ability to provide a document to the whole group as an attachment.
PowerPoint slide decks and OneNote documents can also be presented to the group interactively, without needing either of those programs running.
The biggest stumbling block was the program's overall performance. Even on high-end systems with plenty of bandwidth, audio and video both stuttered far more often than the other apps tested here, a sign that the back end's performance was more to blame than the client.
Microsoft's integrated messaging and conferencing solution still feels unfinished. Laggy video, an inconsistent Mac client and a complicated back end setup process don't help.
Skype has become a popular choice for free VoIP communication, with two-person video chat as a standard feature. Version 5.1, released in January 2011, added multiperson videoconferencing as well.
The free edition of Skype allows multiuser chat, but only one person in such a chat can have video active. To enable group videoconferencing, at least one person on the call needs to have a Skype Premium subscription, for which you can purchase a day pass ($4.99) or a subscription on a monthly ($8.99), quarterly ($20.23), or annual ($53.94) basis.
If you don't need anything too ambitious, Skype may be the best place to start. To begin with, odds are that you and your cohorts already have the program. If you don't, it's free to download and use. Skype also makes Android and iOS clients, although they don't support multiperson videoconferencing, just conventional one-on-one video chat.
I'd been a regular Skype user for some time before trying out the videoconferencing feature, which simply adds multiple video feeds to Skype's existing group-chat format. That makes it relatively easy for a Skype user to dive in, which is a nice plus, although it does nothing for people who already dislike Skype's somewhat clunky and cluttered interface.
As with most other teleconferencing applications, Skype automatically tracks who is speaking and gives that person's video feed prominence. (If several people try to talk at once, it doesn't switch.) If you have multiple monitors, the screen-sharing function lets you pick one and share whatever's on that display to everyone in the conference. It's not interactive, though; you can't give mouse or keyboard control to another user.
Moderator control for group chats is limited: You can mute your own mike and disable your own camera, but not someone else's. It would also have been nice for Skype's file-sending feature to deliver files to everyone in a conference at once, but it's limited to one person at a time. And the only way to do whiteboarding or advanced file sharing is through third-party add-ons, such as IDroo.
Using Skype for videoconferencing has some other downsides. For one, discussion groups can't be very large: they're capped at a maximum of ten people, and Skype recommends that you only have five or fewer people in a group conference to avoid performance problems.
Another possible obstacle is Skype's fair-use policy for group video calls, which allows a maximum of 10 hours per day, 100 hours per month and 4 hours per call. Exceeding these limits causes any active call to be downgraded to audio-only. That said, these limits shouldn't pose a problem for most business conferences.
Also, if you plan on logging videoconferences through Skype, be warned the program has no native way to do this. You'll have to either use one of a number of Skype plugins that perform call recording or a third-party program that does the same. Evaer, for example, can record calls and video in the MP3 and MPEG-4 formats, and includes all the needed codecs.
Skype is a good place to start for conferencing, thanks to the ubiquity of the program, provided you have at least one user with a paid account. Lack of call recording without third-party add-ons is a major minus.
The best place to start on a low (or nonexistent) budget is Google+ Hangouts. Skype's a close second, although it requires you or someone in your circle to have a paid account.
Cisco WebEx Meetings earns many pluses for its free starter tier, support for multiple client types, and full conference recording. Brother OmniJoin lacks Mac support, but has a good roster of end-user tools for conference logging and checking connection quality.
Citrix GoToMeeting has good interactivity and sharing, but limited session-recording, and no free tier. Adobe Connect has broad platform support and very well-thought-out presenter's features, despite having no free tier either. And while Lync has a good deal of promise, the release version of the service needs to be more polished -- and have a more consistent Mac client -- than what we saw.
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.
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