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Network World - As more people telecommute, having a reliable way to connect via desktop video conferencing takes on greater importance. And for employees working in the office, Web-based meetings are a less expensive and less time consuming alternative to business travel.
Web-based conferencing services aren't new, but they have been getting better, easier to use and less expensive. The options range from one-on-one desktop screen sharing to group video chats to large-scale presentations such as Webinars or "virtual conferences."
We looked at eight desktop conferencing services, a mix of market leaders and newcomers, including Adobe Connect, Cisco Webex, Citrix GotoMeeting, InterCall Unifed Meeting (in beta with v5), LogMeIn Join.Me Pro, Microsoft Lync 2013 (in beta, and part of Office 365), Skype Premium (now owned by Microsoft), and Vyew.com Professional.
These vendors have interesting backgrounds -- InterCall comes from traditional audio conferencing services back when we used to refer to them as "bridges, Skype and Lync both come from the Instant Messaging world, GoToMeeting and Join.Me come from vendors who started in the remote support business. All of the services cost less than $60 per month. Several (WebEx, Vyew, and Join.Me) offer free services if your needs are modest, and others offer more expensive plans if you have larger audience requirements. (Watch a slideshow of the products.)
We focused on the software-as-a-service offerings for each vendor, although some of them also offer on premises servers (Adobe and Lync, and Webex later this year, for example). Here are our recommendations based on specific scenarios:
Ad hoc simple desktop collaboration of two to five people working on a PowerPoint presentation or other document, or where a quick demonstration of an application is needed. For products to excel here, we looked at how quickly they could set up and start a meeting, sending out a hyperlink via email.
Join.Me and Webex are the best services here, and Vyew has some benefit too.
Workgroup presentations where several people will be sharing their desktops or need to control the presentation materials. All of the products can function well in terms of switching presenters (although some make this easier than others) and can load up a PowerPoint slide deck or other documents.
Archival recorded meeting content that is played at a later date. There are differences in how each service sets up this archive, and Connect is best here, although Webex, InterCall and GoToMeeting offer recordings too.
Large-scale webinar or presentation to an audience of several hundred people. Here we were looking at ways to handle a crowd and features that look at audience engagement and audience management.
Connect and GotoMeeting's GoToWebinar are best here.
Overall winners are Webex and Connect
Webex and Connect tied for first place on our scorecard, based on their strong showing in a wide variety of situations. Webex was better for ad hoc meetings, and Connect better for larger-scale meetings and for handling archived content. GoToMeeting isn't far behind. (See our test methodology.)
On the other hand, we were disappointed by Microsoft Lync and Skype, which both received the lowest scores, although they are OK for small ad hoc meetings. InterCall came up short in most situations.
Most of the services offer per-host (meaning the meeting presenter) pricing on a monthly basis. For a small business or a well-defined workgroup with the same presenter, this makes sense. Lync and Skype charge by the number of end users. InterCall also offers a 17-cent per minute per user plan, which could work in your favor if you don't use it much or have many meeting participants. Most of the services offered quantity discounts and some offered pre-payment discounts on annual contracts. Vyew has a complex fee schedule that combines per-host and per-user pricing.
While our review refers to "Web conferencing services" the secret sauce behind each of these is either Flash or Java to make connections with your local desktop audio and video resources. If you haven't upgraded your browser lately, or if you have very old versions of Flash or Java on your computer, using these services is a quick way to find out that you need to stay current with the latest technologies. And keeping the browser and Java and Flash in sync is sometimes vexing, particularly if you are using an older operating system such as XP or Mac OS 10.4.
Here are the individual reviews:
Adobe Connect's strength is larger-scale conferences and training sessions. Indeed, Adobe has turned Connect into a post-conferencing reporting powerhouse that can compete with the webinar services offered from places such as On24 and others.
It's less effective for ad hoc meetings because setup will take some effort to enter all the information required.
Connect offers dozens of reports that provide meeting usage, training activities, and others that are appropriate for larger-scale conferences and eLearning situations. Connect also has the strongest features when it came to measuring audience engagement and supporting archival meeting content.
Adobe sells Connect at $55 per host, which is at the high end of the services we tested. There are enterprise plans for multiple host accounts, and a separate plan for handling up to 1,500 participants.
The weakest part of Connect is its audio options. You can use built-in audio from your devices, or you can opt to set up a separate audio conferencing service that is external to Connect and comes with an extra cost. In the configuration screens for your conference setup, these options aren't very clear. If you use the built-in audio, you have to turn on the mic for each user, by default they are all muted. That is a nice touch, particularly for larger meetings.
Connect's mobile clients had the most consistent user interfaces and a clean look. There are icons on the right and left hand sides to turn on and off the mic and video camera, bring up the chat window or see the list of participants. Screen transitions were snappy on both iPhone and Android.
One interesting feature is that each meeting participant can page through a PowerPoint slide deck on their own and then synch up with the host (this can be disabled so everyone is kept in sync).
Meetings can be controlled from the mobile clients too, and, depending on the client, can upload files: the iOS client, for example, can only upload photos while the Android client has access to anything that you have stored on your SD memory card. This is more a limitation of the mobile OS.
The only thing the mobile client can't do is the initial conference "room" setup. Connect's rooms are persistent, which is handy when a team is working over a period of time on a set of documents, for example.
Conference recording is also strong: Connect will record not just the audio and shared video, but also the chat and participant names by default. You can delete the names or the chat transcript if you wish.
Webex is one of the best all-around conferencing services and works well in a number of different use cases. Earlier this year Webex began offering a free version, which is one reason it scored higher on the ad hoc use case. There are some caveats, however: the free plan is limited to a three-person meeting and you can share your entire desktop, not any specific applications. You also can't do remote control sessions. Your audio is also limited to what comes with your computer-connected devices. Finally, there is no support.
If you have more than three participants, you can buy several paid Premium versions. The Premium 8 plan will cost $24 per month for a single host and up to eight participants. For $49 per month, you have a Premium 25 plan, which is limited to nine hosts and 25 participants. If you need more than that, there is an enterprise plan.
Getting a meeting set up isn't onerous. You can attach an agenda and upload files that are archived online for later reference. There's also a variety of data you can require during this process for self-provisioning each user. Meetings can be recorded, but annotations and files are only displayed for the Web clients. The recordings can take several hours to be posted to the WebEx Meeting Place portal page. The resources from Connect or Vyew are better organized.
The mobile clients can't send live video, and the Android and iPhone versions have somewhat different UIs, with controls spread differently across both top and bottom menu bars. Mobile users also can't be presenters. Webex doesn't have a desktop client: you start all meetings from a browser session and it works with Java to setup your conference in the browser.
GoToMeeting is another all-around service that can fit many use cases. In the past, Citrix somewhat short-changed its Mac client, but the company plans to remedy this in the near future by boosting support for app sharing and multiple monitors. The service is $49 per host per month. Citrix offers a separate product for handling larger-scale meetings with the GoToWebinar service, which offers the ability to do interactive polls and surveys. This costs $99 per host per month for less than 25 participants or $499 per host per month for up to 1,000 participants.