Maybe you’re still looking to avoid travel while the latest version of COVID is still making its rounds. Or perhaps you’re trying to transition employees ack to the office, but many want to make working from home a permanent condition. And let’s face it, that can have a lot of benefits. But one thing either scenario requires is a world-class video conferencing system.
That’s because these services have evolved into the beating heart of both online collaboration and personal interactions via the web, at least until the heebie-jeebies around travel finally fade. To help you choose the best service, we’ve tested 12 video conferencing systems, though only the eight top contenders made the list in this roundup.
Working-from-home will remain the more common scenario, however, and for this, you’ll be looking at different components and services from the proprietary end-to-end systems you’ve probably seen deployed in smart conference rooms. Distributed solutions will be the cloud-based services we’ve reviewed here powered by third-party cameras or the webcams you find integrated with most laptops. Because that overall solution is now spread across several component vendors, it can raise support difficulties. To solve them, you’ll need a good understanding of video conferencing systems first.
Choosing the Right Video Conferencing System
Video conferencing has been around for some time in various proprietary formats. Companies specializing in enterprise solutions generally built these systems to connect meeting rooms. Connections were over a local area network and then leased telecommunication lines if the link was between different buildings. Network traffic was handled using proprietary protocols and codecs, which is still the basic architecture used today.
The protocols handle traffic streaming while the codecs encode the audio and video images into digital bits and bytes on the transmitting side and then back to video and audio on the receiving side. This usually required proprietary cameras, microphones, dedicated servers, and client-side applications that were also proprietary.
Today’s cloud video services use TCP/IP as the primary network protocol and a small list of standards-based codecs to do the conversion work. Also, their hardware support is generally open, meaning you can use whatever webcam or microphone works with your computing device. Unlike older proprietary systems that needed a PC or dedicated meeting room smart screen, these new services often support an entirely web browser-based experience without the need to install any app (though a proprietary app is usually the best experience). Additionally, there’s support for all kinds of mobile devices, though these generally work best after you install either an Apple iOS or Google Android app.
Even modern conferencing systems, however, still don’t much interact, meaning you can’t attend a video conference initiated in Microsoft Teams using a Cisco Webex meeting client, for example. Everything still happens in one system. The advantage is that this system no longer requires proprietary client, meeting room, or network hardware. It’s also not one, large system purchase, but a service offered on a per-user or per-host (see below for more on hosts) subscription basis. That can seriously reduce costs.
However, they also offer a big bucket of new capabilities that older systems never had, far more than just face-to-face interactions. Best-in-class video conferencing services let users share their screens, remotely access one another’s desktops, chat via text, exchange files, communicate via digital whiteboards, and even broadcast conferences to large groups of passive viewers (like webinars). Some are part of business-geared Voice-over-IP (VoIP) packages, which allow you to dynamically change a voice call to a video call or initiate a shared meeting at the touch of a button without ever losing the original connection.
Those features are great for central offices, but they’re also fantastic communication aids for work-at-home scenarios, especially when viewed through a long-term lens. But video conferencing can go even further. For example, it’s a perfect tool for addressing customers’ support questions live or interacting with those customers in real-time during a webinar. These capabilities have taken a bit of a back seat with COVID, though they’ll come back big when the pandemic is behind us. But for the last year, what’s caused video conferencing growth to spike has largely been consumer demand as shown in the recent survey charted by Statista.
Growth of Popular Video Conferencing Systems During COVID 19, 2020
Even so, for IT workers, in particular, telecommuting is booming. Even before the pandemic, according to a report by FlexJobs, 3.9 million employees from the United States were working from home at least half of the time. This is an increase of 115% from 2005. That means in some cases, video conferencing represents the only visible interaction that those employees will get with their employers; and now that many companies have discovered that the benefits of telecommuting can work long-term, those numbers are only going to grow.
Cutting Costs With Video Conferencing
Pandemic aside, many small to midsize businesses (SMBs) are spreading out across different geographic locations, a trend that preceded the coronavirus. While that trend has both cost and hiring benefits to most companies, it also brings complex challenges for communication, even for employees that work in-house. Add customers and partners to the mix, and it’s difficult to think about talking to all of these people without extensive travel, which brings restrictive costs. This is where video conferencing can deliver a serious boost to your company’s bottom line.
But even without considering geography, video conferencing can save money. Many of the new collaboration features included with this round of contenders are aimed at automating tasks that used to cost extra. The prime examples are meeting transcription and recording.
In older, proprietary systems, recording a meeting meant either a separate camera or a third-party microphone for audio-only recordings, plus server space for storage. Modern services have automated recording so you can initiate one with the press of a button and then not only automatically save it to the cloud, but also auto-share it with all meeting attendees.
Transcription, too, used to cost extra as meeting managers would have to send out at least an audio recording to a transcription service. Many new video conferencing services now contain artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of virtual meeting assistants who not only manage things like attendance tracking but also do an excellent job of transcribing meetings directly to PDF or Microsoft Word documents. They can then send those docs to everyone in the meeting or save them in shared cloud storage.
As with all software services, pricing and packages are important and they do vary widely. The prices quoted in these reviews are typically for the vendor’s middle pricing tier, and those are usually charged on a per-user per-month basis. (For more pricing information, click through to the individual reviews.) All but one of the video conferencing services tested offer free trials (most are for 30 days), and many don’t require a credit card. That means you don’t have to worry about being charged automatically when the trial ends.
Most services offer entirely free plans, largely due to companies wanting to help consumers during the pandemic. For instance, Glip by RingCentral has a generous free tier in terms of talk time and cloud storage, though its features are limited when compared to its paid tiers. Once you move to those paid tiers, you also need to pay attention to host versus user pricing. Hosts are users that can initiate meetings, and not all companies need to make every user a host.
Many services are scalable depending on the number of hosts and attendees you need. That’s why we recommend not just trying the features of our top-rated video conferencing services, but also using that trial time to experiment with how many users really need to have meeting manager status. In other words, do some evaluation of how video conferencing best fits into your organization’s culture and workflows.
As a general rule, services that are priced per host instead of per-user tend to do better for webinar-type environments. Those priced per attendee tend to be more attractive to collaborative-style engagements where anyone could start a meeting.
Another price consideration is hardware. Every laptop has both a microphone and a serviceable tho fairly mediocre webcam built-in. In fact, the same goes for most mobile devices these days. So the basics for a web meeting are all there in that kind of hardware. Desktops PCs, however, are not so complete. Additionally, if you’re looking for enhanced clarity of sound or video, you’ll need the best microphones and high-end webcams you can get. Depending on how many desktops and conference rooms you’re looking to outfit this way, you can significantly affect the overall cost of your video conferencing solution, so you should budget for that upfront.
Ease of Use and Collaboration
You’ve found a shortlist of video conference services you like. Now what? Start by remembering that video conferencing is no longer about just high-end smart conference rooms. Hybrid work is here to stay, so your video conferencing system is going to be the heartbeat of that architecture. That means lots of new users, which in turn means a really great place to match one vendor’s capabilities over another is the platform’s ease of use.
Obviously, if the user interface (UI) is a maze, then it’s not only going to cause delays in meeting start times, it’ll also become a blocker to using any of the more advanced collaboration features. And that’s where the real value of these systems is: easy and always-on collaboration.
For each review, we discuss the ease of signing up, creating a meeting, inviting participants, and setting up audio and video controls. We also look at the user experience (UX) from the meeting invitees’ point of view, as well as how easy it is to access smart meeting controls. That covers not only whiteboard-style collaboration, but also file sharing, annotation, and the virtual assistant features mentioned above.
We test each service’s prominent features, but it’s up to you to decide on particular features. Do you need dial-in numbers, VoIP support, or both? And do you need features like screen sharing or remote control? Some services offer both teleconferencing with dial-in numbers (local or toll-free) and VoIP calling, while some offer just one or the other. A few offer international dial-in numbers.
All of the products reviewed offer video calls via webcam, which is a feature that’s creeping into several team messaging platforms, like Microsoft Teams and Slack, too. In Teams’ case, this is a full video conferencing solution, which is why we’ve reviewed it here. Slack and some of its other competitors, however, have only implemented person-to-person video calling, which is why we haven’t reviewed them as part of this roundup.
However, Slack’s strength in this regard (and it’s a strength shared by its competitors) is its very long list of out-of-the-box integration options. Inside Slack, you can only do person-to-person video, but the platform integrates just fine with Google Workspace, Teams, Zoom, and a host of other communications platforms, including the ones we’ve reviewed here, so a smart Slack administrator can build all the meeting functionality you need that way.
In all of these reviews, we hosted and joined meetings to test the experience of both registered and non-registered users. We made sure to outline how easy it is to join a meeting, including whether or not a participant needs to download software before joining (which could cause a delay). In this case, it’s important to communicate with employees about hardware compatibility and your preferred browser. Other services simply require that attendees enter a code to access the meeting.
Recommended by Our Editors
Our reviews also cover the host’s administration features. The best services let you set up different types of meetings, such as a lecture-style meeting in which all participants are muted, or a discussion or Q&A mode in which presenters can mute and unmute participants as needed. Other options include enabling and disabling webcams, locking latecomers out of a meeting, creating a waiting room while preparing for the meeting, and allowing break-out sessions.
For presentations, screen sharing is important. But so are more granular options, such as the ability to share just one application (Microsoft PowerPoint, for example), document, or image not just your entire desktop. Most of the video conferencing services in this roundup also offer a text chat mode not only during a meeting but sometimes outside a video call, too.
You should experiment with all these features during a trial and think carefully about how much actual collaboration you need in your various meetings. That means evaluating the service with more than just IT personnel. You should also include stakeholders from your various departments so you’ve got an accurate representation of the different kinds of gatherings your employees hold between themselves and folks outside the organization.
Troubleshooting and Network Management
Unfortunately, even in a large, centralized network like the one in your main office, working with any stream-dependent app, especially video conferencing, becomes trickier the larger the network and the more apps there are competing for network bandwidth. That means if you’re running all or part of your solution on a larger network, then prepare to handle some tweaking.
While the basic setup is enough to get one session running, be sure to work with your IT staff to test what happens when multiple streams are open. And not just multiple streams, but those same streams competing with all the other types of traffic you’ve typically got running, too. You’re looking for artifacts or excessive buffering that disrupt the stream. An even more pressing, and now probably a long-term issue for many IT pros, is the home network situation.
While video conferencing has certainly had a positive impact on employees trapped at home, it’s also put your IT help desk personnel in an awkward position. The video conferencing app is now a core business service, but it’s probably running over consumer devices, home network routers, and even peripherals, like webcams and microphones, most of which the IT department didn’t purchase and usually hasn’t been trained in servicing. That makes supporting those home users on an end-to-end basis very difficult. And that’s not even considering the internet, which handles most of the network traffic and which your IT department doesn’t control either.
Fortunately, the coronavirus is a temporary problem, which means most businesses are using the same “solution,” and that’s to simply handle this problem on a case-by-case basis. If an IT pro can service a router remotely, that’s what happens. If not, then it’s down to either sending the device to a central location to be reconfigured or simply walking the employee through the required steps over the phone.
Once the pandemic is over, if you’re still looking at a large number of permanent home workers (and many businesses will be doing exactly that), then you can build more long-term solutions, like pre-configuring a set number of router models that are then distributed to your home workers. That way, IT staff have control over those devices remotely and can get trained in their particulars, which will make it cost-effective to support them.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) are another, related problem. Many businesses are making employees use these services when working remotely to protect themselves and corporate data. But because they use encryption, VPNs can often cause bandwidth or throughput problems and those can affect video streaming performance. They’re also run by companies other than your video conferencing vendor, so supporting a combination of both usually ends up as an internal problem.
To help, you’ll need to investigate different VPN offerings for remote connections, and potentially work with your IT staff to implement Quality of Service (QoS) features on both your main network and users’ home networks. That’ll protect the bandwidth required during your video conferences. If you’re already using a cloud PBX-based VoIP system for your phone calls, your IT people will already have a good idea of how to protect traffic this way as the requirements are very similar.
Don’t Forget Vendor Support
If all this sounds like once you buy into one of these services you’ll be supporting yourself, that’s not the case. It’s just that the particulars of implementing any video conferencing service can vary so widely from business to business that your own IT people are usually the best first line of support. After all, they’re the ones who’ll wind up knowing the system best.
But aside from making sure your IT staff is thoroughly familiar with your chosen video conferencing service, you’ll also want solid support resources from the service vendor. The best video conferencing services offer phone, email, and chat support in addition to extensive online documentation. End-user support in this manner may cost extra, but it’s worth considering if your IT staff is small. Checking for a professional services arm that will help train both users and IT pros is another important factor, and an active user community can be a good resource, too.