What is Video Conferencing?
For many information-oriented workers, especially those in larger U.S. metro areas, working at home will likely become a long-term trend lasting into 2021 and beyond. A major contributor to the success of this strategy has been video conferencing. Much more than simply an occasional meeting and marketing tool, video conferencing has evolved into something that's become as ubiquitous as the phone for folks working from home. To make it work, you'll be looking at different hardware components from the ones you've deployed in your conference rooms to make broad scale video-enabled telecommuting work, but the back-end service providers will remain similar.
Additionally, video conferencing services usually offer 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. Some are part of business-geared Voice-over-IP (VoIP) packages, which allows for dynamically changing voice calls to video calls and shared meetings at the touch of a button without establishing new connections.
All of those are fantastic communication aids for work-at-home scenarios, especially when viewed through a long-term lens. But video conferencing also has functions other than keeping distributed employees connected. For one, it's an efficient way of taking on task such as addressing customers' support questions live, interacting with customers in real time webinars or other marketing events, and even reaching out to partners. These capabilities have taken a bit of a back seat since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused video conferencing growth to spike largely in its consumer-oriented brands as shown in the recent survey charted below by market research firm, 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 work from home at least half of the time. This is an increase of 115 percent from 2005. That means in some cases, video conferencing represents the only visible interaction that employees will get with their employers. Especially for those in influential positions, being able to be seen can often mean the difference between being understood or not.
Cutting Costs With Video Conferencing
Pandemic aside, businesses are moving further apart nd have been doing so for some time. That is, many small to midsize businesses (SMBs) are becoming spread out across many geographic locations, which 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 folks without extensive travel, which brings restrictive costs. This is where video conferencing can deliver a serious boost to your company's bottom line.
Instead of spending half your life in airport lines, bring life to your meetings by using a video conferencing service. This way, the presenter is not just a voice on the phone but an on-screen presence who is able to see and interact with other attendees, share presentations, and more. For collaborative meetings, the host can sketch out ideas on an online whiteboard and invite participants to join in. Some video conferencing services let presenters pass control to another participant who can continue the meeting without interruption. Others let hosts deny access to latecomers to further avoid disruption.
Our Editors' Choice video conferencing service for general video conferencing is Cisco WebEx Meetings, and our Editors' Choice video conferencing service for webinars and presentations is ClickMeeting—both robust products that make video meetings (almost) fun for your staff.
Understanding Video Conferencing Price Tags
As with all software services, pricing and packages are an important consideration when it comes to video conferencing. The prices quoted and the product descriptions in this review roundup are typically for the lowest level of service per user per month. (For more pricing information, click through to the individual reviews.) All but one of the video conferencing services tested offers free trials (most are for 30 days) and many don't require a credit card on file. This means you don't have to worry about being charged automatically when the trial ends.
For example, join.me offers a free plan with limited features, which is good for small or even single-employee companies. Many services are scalable depending on the number of hosts and attendees you need. I recommend trying a few of our top-rated video conferencing services before committing to a particular one; try out some of the features to figure out what you really need and what's overkill.
Another major consideration is whether or not the service is priced to scale based on host or attendee. Those that are priced per host tend to do better for webinar-type environments while those priced per attendee tend to be more attractively priced for collaborative-style engagements where anyone could be a host. Microsoft Teams, for instance, is a sunk cost if you are already using Microsoft Office 365, so it is a very attractive option. However, if you routinely conduct webinars, then ClickMeeting, which is priced per host, is an excellent route to take.
Ease of Use and Collaboration
Once you have found packages in your price range, the most important consideration is ease of use. Obviously, if the user interface (UI) is difficult for you and your colleagues to navigate and use, then it's going to cause delays in meeting start times, which will frustrate everyone. 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, which can make or break a meeting.
We test each service's prominent features, but it's up to you to decide whether or not you need dial-in numbers, VoIP support, or both options for your audio, and whether or not you need video calls in addition to screen sharing. 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.
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 is to join a meeting, including whether or not a participant needs to download software before joining an online meeting (which could cause a delay). In this case, it's important to communicate with employees about hardware compatibility and preferred browser. Other services simply require that attendees enter a code to access the meeting.
Our reviews also cover the host's admin 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 or let all participants speak. If you have ever been distracted by the sound of someone typing or a barking dog in the background, then you'll appreciate these controls. 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 as are granular options such as the ability to share just one application (Microsoft PowerPoint, for example), document, or image or share your entire desktop. Most of the video conferencing services in this roundup also offer a whiteboard tool, which you can use to sketch out ideas or take notes during the meeting for everyone to see. You also need to consider what the participants are able to do, such as share their screen, enable their webcam, sketch on a shared whiteboard, and even take over the presentation. Think about how much actual collaboration you'd like in your meetings.
Other features we looked at include the number of participants allowed on a call and the number of video feeds allowed simultaneously. A few generous ones offer unlimited participates while others offer just four participants at a time. Consider how important this is to your company. Most services let you record meetings, and a few let you edit the recording right within the software. These recorded meetings can then be used for your records or as webinars for anyone who missed the meeting or for new employees.
Troubleshooting and Support
Unfortunately, working with any stream-dependent app, especially video conferencing, becomes trickier the larger the network and the more apps there competing for network bandwidth. That means if you're running all or part of your solution on a larger network, as most businesses are, then get set to handle some tweaking. While basic setup is enough to get one session running, be sure to work with your IT staffers to test what happens when multiple streams are open. You're looking for artifacts or excessive buffering that disrupts the stream which can happen if the video stresses the bandwidth limits of your network or your internet connection. Also, if you have remote users that connect to the internet by using a virtual private network (VPN), then be aware that these services often also cause bandwidth problems that can affect video streaming performance.
To help, you'll need to investigate different VPN offerings for those remote connections, and potentially work with your IT professional to implement Quality of Service (QoS) on your network that'll protect the bandwidth used by video conferences while they're happening. If you're already using a cloud PBX-based VoIP system for your phone calls, your IT people will already have a good idea how to protect traffic this way as the requirements are very similar.
For the times when something goes wrong, you need solid support resources. The best video conferencing services offer phone, email, and chat support in addition to extensive online documentation. Active user communities are also a good resource to have at your disposal.
Finally, you'll want to check compatibility with browsers and system requirements. All of the services that were tested work on PCs, while some work on Macs, and a few work with Linux. Most are broadly compatible with web browsers but you'll need to upgrade to one of the newest versions. Still more than a few of them require plug-ins or downloadable apps to get the maximum level of value. This can often be a sticking point when corporate IT policies are in play that restrict what can be installed; Internet Explorer-only shops are particularly guilty of this. As such, it's important to consider what works best within the framework of your organization. Microsoft Teams, for instance, tends to work best in Microsoft-only shops where Active Directory (AD) is used religiously. Flash is also an unwelcome gremlin that keeps showing up. It is scheduled to be deprecated in 2020 and browsers such as Chrome block that content by default.
You have probably used a video conferencing program at some point in your career, and it's likely the experience wasn't the most enjoyable. However, you may be surprised at the extensive features that are available in these video conferencing services to make remote meetings just a little less painful.
Where To Buy
The Best For Internal ConferencingRingCentral Meetings
The Best For Standalone ConferencingClickMeeting$40.00 Per Month Per Host at ClickMeeting
The Best For Small Business and ConsumersZoom Meetings
The Best For SMBs with Standalone NeedsGoToMeeting
The Best For Large OrganizationsMicrosoft Teams
The Best For Shared Meetings and CollaborationBlueJeans Meetings