No doubt about it, 2020 has been the year of the virtual meeting. As companies have found themselves forced to embrace remote working, regular get-togethers have necessarily moved online and video conferencing providers have seen record growth levels.
This isn’t a temporary thing, though. Whenever the restrictions are finally lifted, few businesses will be going back to the way things were. Many organisations have found that remote working brings real benefits, not least in terms of operating costs, and are looking to make permanent changes to their working practices.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the office commute – working from home has its downsides, such as a sense of isolation. However, many companies are looking at allowing staff to split their working week between home and office.
For such a setup, it makes sense for businesses to have a dedicated video conference room in the office, where on-site staff can have face-to-face meetings with remote workers, suppliers and customers. That might sound expensive, but surging demand is pushing prices down, making video conference room systems very affordable.
Many of the best solutions have a central controller with a colour touchscreen. This connects to the other components in the kit and offers simple controls enabling you to start or join a meeting with a few taps – ideal for users who want to get down to business without wasting time figuring out the user interface. Certain touchscreens can even change their display to match the application interface of the chosen provider.
You can locate your central unit on a desk or mount it on a wall – but you’ll need to think about cabling. Some systems run off a standard Ethernet cable with PoE, while elsewhere you’ll find USB connections and proprietary cables.
It’s also worth considering if you want meeting participants to be able to connect their laptops or smartphones to the central video conferencing unit. This can be useful for screen sharing and presentations, but connection methods again vary: some systems use a special USB cable or a standard HDMI port, while others support Miracast and AirPlay for wire-free screen mirroring.
Sound and vision
You can’t have a productive meeting without clear sound, so it’s important to pick a speaker that suits your meeting space. Video bars with built-in speakers are fine for huddle rooms, but for larger meetings you might need something more powerful. If your monitor has built-in loudspeakers, you can pipe the sound through that; alternatively, you might need to invest in some external speakers.
Similar considerations apply to microphones, as you’ll naturally want to be sure that everyone in the room can be heard clearly by remote participants. Video bars and desktop controllers tend to come with integrated mic arrays, and we’ve found these work well at distances of up to 4m. Other solutions offer separate microphone pods that can be positioned as required, and may even let you add extra pods for large rooms.
4K or not 4K?
There’s one component you’ll definitely need to source separately and that’s the main display, on which you’ll view your remote colleagues. It’s not necessary to spend a fortune on this component – even a budget-priced screen will be fine in small rooms – but we do recommend investing in a 4K model.
It might seem an unnecessary extravagance, especially if you’re on a tight budget. After all, very few video conferencing providers support 4K connections – and depending on the size of the panel you choose (and the size of the room), the difference between a 4K screen and a 1080p one may not be all that obvious.
There’s no doubt, though, that UHD meetings are coming. Most kits already include 4K-capable cameras, while internet connections are getting faster and the highly efficient H.265 video standard is slowly establishing itself in the video conferencing market. It’s only a matter of time until 4K connections become commonplace – so when setting up your new video conference room, we’d recommend that you future-proof it with a screen that’s ready for next-generation video connections.
Once your hardware is all in place, there’s just one more thing you need – a cloud video conferencing service to handle the actual calls. There’s a huge range of providers to choose from, but if you want to keep things as simple as possible then the Lifesize and Starleaf systems recently reviewed on our sister site IT Pro may appeal, as they come with the vendor’s own cloud services built in. This gives you the big advantage of centralised support: any problems you encounter with the hardware, online services or client apps should be easier to resolve, and you won’t be passed back and forth between different companies all pointing the finger at each other.
If your company already has a preferred provider, the other two products in this guide might suit you better. The Poly Studio X30 supports five different platforms out of the box, while Logitech’s Room Solutions come in a variety of flavours, each one customised for a specific provider.
It’s also worth checking out any additional integrations that may allow your video conferencing system to talk to other business tools. A useful tool is meeting room management, which works with Microsoft Outlook or Exchange to let users check room availability and arrange bookings.
We may not know exactly what a post-pandemic world will look like, but it’s clear that video conferencing will be an essential ingredient for conducting business and with prices now very affordable for SMBs, there are some great solutions to choose from.