ezTalks Onion: all-in-one videoconferencing is under-baked

Quick setup, access across devices make this an interesting, eventual video play

I had a chance to get an early version (really early, as there is still some rough edges to be worked out) of the ezTalks Onion. The device (I don’t know why they call it the Onion – it doesn’t look like one particularly) is an all-in-one videoconferencing device (camera, microphones, speakers) that sits on top of an HDMI-enabled TV or monitor to provide conference room video and audio. Network connectivity is handled through an Ethernet port or, if you’re brave, Wi-Fi. The Hong Kong-based company had a successful Indiegogo funding campaign for the device, and is now ready to expand its offerings to the general public.

Once hooked up, the Onion connects to the ezTalks cloud-based videoconferencing service. Meetings can be created and viewed across a multitude of devices, including PCs, Macs, smartphones (iOS and Android) and tablets via the ezTalks app. The company’s free service lets one person host a videoconference for up to three people – if you want to have more hosts, you move to the paid plans. Those options range from $6.99 per host per month (for up to 10 participants), all the way up to $56.99 per host per month (for up to 100 participants – wow!).

The only up-front expenditure for companies looking to buy the Onion is a $1,300 charge (it’s on sale for $1,099 over the holidays) for the hardware component. So it’s unlikely that someone would want to use this for their home network – but perhaps an important executive who is working from home might use this in their home office. More likely, a smaller company would buy one of these units for their smaller conference room setups.

Setting up the Onion was slightly easier than some other video and audio conferencing systems I’ve tried, although a Quick Start Guide would have been appreciated. The Onion unit connects to either a monitor or TV via the HDMI port, and you also have the choice for Ethernet or Wi-Fi for the network connection. Power is provided through an included power adapter. There are two USB ports on the back of the Onion device as well, but it was unclear what those were used for. The kit came with a USB cable extension, so it’s possible that this was for connecting a computer directly to the Onion device.

I could schedule or start a meeting directly from the app (either on my phone or computer), directing the service to either use the camera, microphone and speakers on my phone/computer or Onion device. Adding others to the call means sending out invites to contacts via email addresses or setting up contacts through Google, Outlook or your phone. Attendees do not have to be signed up with ezTalks to participate – they can join meetings by clicking on invite links and viewing through their browser.

As mentioned earlier, there are still some rough edges. The app, for example, shows some writing in Chinese where it shouldn’t, and getting the Onion connected to your network is more complicated than it needs to be – it wants you to go through the app instead of providing for an on-screen setup. This is probably done because there’s no remote control for the Onion – something that would have made input a lot easier (than having to download an app and connect the device that way). Another example – whiteboard access can only be done with the Windows client – folks joining a meeting via a Mac, Android or iOS device don’t yet have that option (the company says it’s coming soon).

The picture quality was good from the Onion – at least what you’d expect from a 1080p camera connected to an HDMI-enabled TV. The two guests in my meeting were coming in through the webcam from their Mac notebooks – again, good, not great – basically what you’d expect to see from other video services.

The audio, however, was not very good. In my two tests (one with the Onion, the other with the Mac client), I could hear feedback from my own voice during the conference (basically my voice coming through the other person’s speaker, then coming back as audio to the microphone). Other videoconferences have solved this issue so people don’t have to wear headphones during a call – this is something ezTalks needs to fix.

The interface also needs some work – the icons for video, microphone and speaker were all reversed – in other words, in order to enable the video, you click on the icon and it puts the slash through the icon – meaning “On” with the visual of the slash. In order to mute your video or microphone, you then push the icon again and the slash disappears. It’s opposite of what regular people would do.

The intended market for the Onion is also questionable – I think most larger companies will likely go with more established companies (Logitech or Lifesize, to name a few), and home users can get by with Skype and FaceTime (since they likely wouldn’t need to do multiple-attendee conferences). That leaves small or midsize businesses (or large companies that might want to equip smaller rooms), and there are also a lot of other options available for them as well.

However, ezTalks seems to be on the right track with the Onion and cloud-based service – the company just needs some time to smooth out the rough edges on its interface, audio fixes and setup manuals. If the company can do this, it will be worth a look for small businesses looking for an easier way to video collaborate on multiple devices in multiple locations.

Grade: 2 stars (out of five)

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