All posts by Dave Mitchell

Buyer’s guide to video conference room solutions

Dave Mitchell

13 Oct, 2020

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.

Tap dance

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. 

Cloud connected

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.

Buyer’s guide to cloud file sharing

Dave Mitchell

7 Jan, 2020

Workforces are becoming increasingly mobile, and businesses need to find new ways to help their staff work together. Cloud file sharing is the perfect solution, giving staff a simple and secure way to share documents with colleagues, regardless of where they happen to be located.

Modern sharing services aren’t limited to simple cloud storage, either. In recent years, these services have developed into sophisticated collaboration suites. Users can not only share documents but work interactively with remote colleagues, while background file syncing ensures everyone’s on the same page.

Even if your employees are mostly based in the office, a cloud solution can make a lot of sense. On-premises collaboration suites are expensive to manage and maintain, while a cloud service means you don’t have to invest in servers or storage – and with a huge range of providers and packages to choose from, you need only pay for the services and support you need.

This month, we test cloud file-sharing services from 1&1 Ionos, Box, Citrix and Tresorit. Each one offers a diverse range of file-sharing features, and we put them all through their paces in the lab to help you make the right buying decision.

Master plan

With so many options to choose from, picking a cloud storage plan can seem daunting. It pays to do your research, however – otherwise you could end up spending a lot more than you need.

The majority of cloud storage plans are priced according to a combination of the number of supported users and storage capacity. However, certain plans stipulate a minimum number of users, so the actual cost could be far higher than the headline per-user price would suggest.

Similarly, it’s important to know exactly how much storage you’re paying for. Some plans appear to offer a generous amount of storage per user, when in fact the advertised figure is a total to be shared amongst them all. If the plan doesn’t explicitly state that the quoted allowance is per user, it probably isn’t.

A related issue worth looking into is maximum file size. Most cloud services support multi-gigabyte files, which will be ample for most businesses, but if you need to transfer very large files (such as raw video footage), check that this is permitted.

Another way to save money is by choosing the right payment terms. Monthly subscriptions are convenient if you don’t want to make a long-term commitment, but many providers offer substantial discounts when you sign up for a yearly contract.

Finally, be brutal about who actually requires access to your chosen cloud service. There’s no need to pay for every single person in your company to be included.

Fight for the users

There are numerous free cloud file-sharing solutions out there, but we recommend you steer clear: these have low storage caps and don’t provide proper management for users and shared data. Most business plans, by contrast, include an administrative cloud portal, allowing you to manage access and enforce security measures such as two-factor authentication.

You can often also add users to your sharing roster by sending an email invitation directly from the administrative portal. Once this has been received, the recipient just needs to click on the email link to join the collaboration party. They will then receive access to a personal web portal linked to their account for file management. A desktop agent is also normally offered, which keeps all files in selected local folders in sync, so the latest versions are always to hand. Certain agents let you save hard disk space by storing selected data only in the cloud, but this can leave you stymied if you lose internet access.

Encryption restrictions

If you’re going to entrust your data to a third-party service, you need to think about security. Confidential documents and personal information must be protected so check that your would-be provider encrypts data prior to transmission, and stores it only in encrypted form. For even greater security, consider services that offer zero-knowledge encryption, where the provider has no access to the keys.

Data sovereignty is worth thinking about, too. Regulatory compliance may stipulate that your data has to be stored in a specific jurisdiction: if this applies to you, look for a provider that provides data residency services with a choice of data centre locations.

Then there’s the question of whether your own users might accidentally breach security by sharing links to files stored in the cloud. Look for services that provide access logs and allow users to password-protect shared download links, as well as apply download limits and expiry dates.

While not strictly a security issue, file versioning is worth looking for as well. Cloud storage services shouldn’t be used for primary business backup, but the ability to quickly and easily roll back files to an earlier state can be hugely valuable. Support varies considerably among providers: some will store up to ten previous versions of each file, while others extend this to 50.

Out on the road

The final piece of the puzzle is mobile support, which allows users to access shared files from a phone or tablet. The best providers offer free iOS and Android apps, and some include advanced features such as the ability to use your device’s camera to “scan” documents to your cloud account.

Certain services also offer tight integration with other apps such as Office 365, Slack and Salesforce, so they will fit neatly into your existing workflow. No two business will have exactly the same requirements, however, so read on to see which of the file-sharing services on test this month could be your next cloud collaboration partner.

How to choose the perfect video conferencing kit

Dave Mitchell

26 Sep, 2019

Effective communication has always been critical to success in business – and in today’s global economy that often means working closely with customers and partners in far-flung locations. Email and voice calls might be sufficient for basic exchanges of information, but videoconferencing (VC) offers clear benefits in communication and collaboration – so it’s no surprise that more businesses are embracing it.

VC isn’t just about communicating outside of the company, either. Plenty of modern companies make use of virtual workplaces, where staff and teams don’t share the same physical office. VC provides the facilities for face-to-face meetings, helping staff to be just as efficient and productive as an on-site team. It’s good for morale too, allowing remote workers to feel more involved and less isolated.

When you think of dedicated VC hardware, you might picture the boardroom of a big corporation – but it’s nowadays a perfectly affordable option for SMBs. Indeed, it can pay for itself in mere months by drastically reducing travel costs and minimising the time that employees waste in transit. Environmentally-aware businesses will appreciate how it also reduces the pollution generated by road trips and flights.

Fancy meeting you here

When choosing a VC solution, you need to decide whether you want it to be portable or static. Portable models combine a camera, mics and a speaker in a single compact unit, and only require a USB connection to the computer that’s running your chosen VC application. This makes them ideal for impromptu meetings, and they can be easily moved around and even transported to a client’s premises if need be.

Static models generally feature separate camera and speakerphone units, and are best suited to meeting rooms where the tables and chairs stay in fixed positions. There are also hybrid models, which are too large to call truly portable, but combine the camera and microphone in a single unit that can be carried about to different rooms if required.

If you want to use your VC system in combination with a large, wall-mounted display, you’ll find it convenient to choose a product that provides its own HDMI ports. If your system lacks these, you can still watch the remote side of the conversation on a TV or monitor, but this will need to be connected directly to the computer hosting the meeting app.

It’s also worth looking out for Bluetooth and NFC support, which lets users easily pair their mobiles with the speakerphone unit to make hands-free calls.

Sound chaser

Setting up a VC system can be tedious, as you have to find somewhere to position the camera so that everyone is in shot. However, the latest VC products include a smart new feature designed to solve this. It comes with a range of names, such as “speaker tracking”, “intelligent attention” and “RightSight”; whatever you call it, it uses the input from the microphone to work out where the person speaking is located, and dynamically focus the camera on them.

In our testing we found that the technology works extremely well; some systems even crop and frame the meeting room view to cut out distracting empty space around the speaker. The Owl Labs Meeting Owl makes clever use of a fisheye lens to provide intelligent framing over a full 360° view – perfect for round-table meetings.

Other features worth looking out for are audio-processing technologies that can improve the sound quality of your meetings by automatically identifying and removing background noises such as traffic, keyboard clatter or paper shuffling, allowing listeners to hear the speaker more clearly. Static VC room solutions normally use multiple microphones to ensure everyone can be heard; most mics can easily pick up sound from up to 12ft away, but if you’re organising a meeting around a long table, you should consider products that allow you to add more microphone pods to increase coverage.

Special 4K

When choosing your VC hardware, you may wonder whether it’s worth going for a 4K “Ultra HD” system. In most cases, we suggest that it is. A lower-resolution system may be cheaper, but 4K technology is already firmly entrenched in the consumer market, and economies of scale mean that it won’t be long before it becomes the standard.

The advantages are clear: 4K video has four times as many pixels as a 1080p HD feed. That means far more fine detail is captured, which can help participants pick up on facial expressions and get a good clear view of products and displays. Any text on whiteboards and in presentations will be crystal clear.

The main challenge to 4K uptake is its bandwidth requirements. All things being equal, four times the detail means four times the data. To get a smooth 4K video feed requires at least 15Mbits/sec of dedicated bandwidth and preferably 25Mbits/sec.

If that’s a stretch, new technologies can help. The H.265 HEVC (high efficiency video coding) standard aims to slash 4K bandwidth requirements by as much as half. Other solutions use proprietary encoding, such as the Lifesize software that claims to require as little as 3Mbits/sec for 4K video and 6Mbits/sec for presentations.

Be in my video

If you’re worried about whether your VC hardware will work with your preferred communications platform, fear not. All major systems are USB video class-compliant, so they don’t require any special drivers, and many support a range of VC platforms, including Cisco Webex, Google Hangouts, BlueJeans, Skype for Business, Zoom and more. Even so, we recommend trialling them first to make sure they have the features and mobile support your users demand.

No matter what your needs, sophisticated videoconferencing products are now becoming very affordable for businesses of all sizes – allowing you to embrace the virtual workplace and reap its cost benefits. Read on for our reviews of four quite different VC systems, with differing designs and price points, to find the one that will help you enhance and unify your communications – rather than complicating them.

How to choose the right network monitoring solution

Dave Mitchell

22 Jan, 2019

IT support isn’t just about fixing printers and resetting passwords. Your technical staff should be constantly monitoring your network for emergent problems or faults, and then responding proactively to ensure that any issues don’t impact on your productivity.

In this age of growing networks and shrinking budgets, however, that’s a big ask. You need an ally in the form of network monitoring software. This will expose precisely what’s on your network, and alert you in double-quick time to problems and failures. And the good news for SMBs is that there are plenty of affordable monitoring products available, making it simple to stay on top of your network and application health.

In this buyer’s guide, we look at software solutions from four big names – Ipswitch, ManageEngine, Paessler and SolarWinds. They’re all designed to suit the needs of a typical SMB, and we put each one through its paces in the lab to help you choose the right one.


Your first question might be whether this is an area where you really need to spend money at all. There certainly are free and open-source network monitoring utilities – but these have many limitations, including limited feature sets that mean you will probably need to run multiple tools in conjunction to capture all the key information. This complicates configuration and maintenance, and leaves you with multiple points of potential failure.

The WhatsUp Gold console can be customised to flag up specific critical events

When it comes to something as critical as your network, it’s best to use a single paid-for product, where all features are properly integrated and support is just a phone call away. With all devices, applications and services monitored from one console, it’s far easier to quickly spot and address problems.

On that note, it’s a good idea to look for a package that allows you to customise its main dashboard. Network monitoring software can pull together a huge amount of data, but the particular devices and services that are critical to your organisation should be front and centre.

WhatsUp Gold can analyse NetFlow data – but this is an optional upgrade

Alerting features are important too, as you might not always be sitting in front of the console. Most monitoring packages can raise the alarm when a device goes down, or when a threshold is breached (such as CPU usage or temperature). These can range from opening a pop-up window to sending an email, firing off an SMS or even automatically triggering a user-specified script.

Be prepared

Monitoring software won’t interfere with the operation of your network, but you’ll probably need to do a bit of preparatory configuration before you get started.

Infrastructure devices such as switches, routers and firewalls use SNMP to report their status, but this service is invariably disabled by default. You must enable it by hand – otherwise your monitoring software will only be able to report very limited information about what’s going on. If it’s available, use SNMPv3 as it adds extra security, requiring the monitoring software to authenticate before allowing access.

For systems that use Windows, Microsoft’s Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) service is the preferred monitoring method. This provides even more information than SNMP, such as details of services, processes and storage usage. It also allows you to monitor Hyper-V hosts.

Products will often rely on high-level device credentials to gather information, so for security’s sake it’s essential that you lock down access to their administrative consoles.

Certain platforms allow you to set up multiple users with their access restricted to specific functions, such as viewing and reporting. This is a feature worth looking for: it could prove valuable down the line, even if your current IT support team is one guy in a hoodie.

Licensing – sensor, element or device?

Perhaps the biggest headache when choosing a network monitoring solution is the confusing proliferation of licensing schemes. Almost every vendor has its own unique pricing structure (and each claims that it is the most convenient and affordable).

PRTG offers a remarkable range of sensors – and all are included as standard

Some charge per “element”, or per “sensor”. These are effectively the same thing, each one representing a single monitored item. On a server, this could be one CPU core, one Windows service or one disk volume; on an Ethernet switch, it could be one network interface.

Device licences are easier to understand: one licence allows you to monitor anything and everything that’s happening on a single device. No matter how many ports your switch has, or how many services your Windows server is running, it will only use up one licence.

The catch is that if you only want to keep an eye on one or two items, you still have to license the entire server. Sensor licences provide more flexibility, but you have to think carefully about exactly what you’re going to monitor, and how many sensors you need. If you’re going this route, be sure to choose a product that makes it easy to reassign sensors between devices.

Optional extras

As well as basic licensing costs, keep an eye out for potentially pricey add-ons. Many monitoring packages aren’t limited to basic devices and services, but can also keep an eye on business apps including Exchange, IIS and SQL Server, plus cloud services such as Dropbox, Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure and Office 365.

However, you may find that these capabilities are offered only as paid-for extras. Some products also charge for Hyper-V and VMware monitoring, while others include it as standard.

Network discovery takes the legwork out of monitoring devices

Another potential differentiator is the ability to monitor the network from your mobile device. Some platforms provide free iOS and Android apps that connect to the monitoring host, while others are entirely lacking in such services.

Whatever features you need, you will find a great spread across the four products we’ve included in this roundup – and all of them are available as free, time-limited evaluations, so you can try them out to make sure you buy the one that best suits your needs.

The business buyer’s guide to remote support software

Dave Mitchell

13 Jun, 2018

Whatever size your business is, your support department needs to be responsive. Resolving problems quickly keeps productivity losses to a minimum. Sadly, most support teams are overworked and understaffed. Few companies can afford to have technicians rushing out to examine users’ systems in person every time an issue is reported.

That applies all the more for staff based in branch or remote offices – or, as is increasingly common, at home. A lengthy road trip is a highly inefficient use of resources, and anyone who’s ever tried to troubleshoot over the telephone will tell you what a frustrating experience this can be.

Happily, there’s a solution: remote support software, which lets technicians “take over” affected systems from afar, and investigate and fix problems without leaving the comfort of their own desk.

What’s wrong with free software?

The first question you might ask is whether you need to spend money on remote support software at all.

It’s true that there are a great many free remote access products available, including the Quick Assist tool that’s built into Windows 10. This allows anyone with a Microsoft account to take full control of a remote computer by simply exchanging a six-digit PIN with a remote user, and it can be very handy on the odd occasion when you need to help out a friend or family member.

The NetOp Remote Control agent provides a plethora of useful support tools

For a business environment, however, it’s a non-starter: these free tools can punch a hole clean through your firewall, and are virtually impossible to manage and audit.

However, premium apps are typically designed to be highly secure, with features such as AES 256-bit encrypted connections and endpoint password protection. They can also often enforce access permissions for support staff, allowing you to decide what level of control is permitted for each one. That could be useful if your business offers multiple levels of support: you can allow first-line responders only to passively view a client’s screen, while full remote control is limited to more senior personnel.

On-premises or cloud?

Some remote-support systems are hosted in the cloud by their vendors, while others run inside your company network and are managed by your own IT department.

The on-premises option is most suitable if you need total control over what can be accessed and by whom, and it’s easier to set up than you might fear.

DameWare can use RDP for quick client connections and simple remote control

The only potential gotcha arises when it comes to accessing systems outside the local network. Some packages use a proprietary gateway that links multiple sites together over encrypted links – but check whether this is included as standard, as several only offer it as an option.

If you want to support a range of devices that are spread across multiple locations then a cloud-hosted support solution might be a better choice. These platforms make it easy to access all clients securely from a single web portal, no matter where in the world they’re located.

NetSupport stores hardware and software inventories on its host system

For the best of both worlds, consider a hybrid solution that teams up an on-premises console with a web portal, allowing you to support local systems via a fast LAN connection and use the internet to access remote ones.

Undercover agents

Remote support normally requires a small agent to be installed on client systems, to listen for incoming connections and allow technicians to access the machine. Some systems can provide various functions using Windows’ built-in remote support features, but the key features – such as remote control and file transfer – typically require a proprietary agent.

On-premises solutions typically include tools to automatically push the agent software out onto multiple systems, so you can ensure that all clients are accessible. Alternatively, you can go for an on-demand support approach, where the agent is only loaded for the duration of the session, and automatically removed afterwards. Cloud-hosted solutions often handle this by allowing technicians to send connection requests to the client, possibly by email, who must then allow access.

This ensures that no-one can connect to your client PCs without express authorisation – reassuring, perhaps, if your users are dealing with confidential information. However, it also means that you can’t access remote systems when the user isn’t present. If this is an issue, look for cloud solutions that include an unattended agent which can be loaded permanently on selected systems.

More features

Alongside standard remote-control services, many support products offer a range of useful extra tools, such as a file transfer extension that enables simple drag-and-drop copies between technician and client, facilities for text, audio and video chat between the user and the support agent, Registry editors and session recording.

Hardware and software inventory tools can be very useful too, as they enable technicians to check what’s installed on the user’s PC prior to starting a support session. On-premises solutions can use the host system to store client inventories, for enhanced efficiency and security.

Many products are able to connect to Mac clients as well as Windows systems, although the experience isn’t always as slick. Platforms tend to require the macOS agent to be manually deployed, and advanced features are sometimes unavailable.

And when it comes to iOS devices such as iPads and iPhones, remote control isn’t possible at all, thanks to the operating system’s strict security model. However, many vendors offer free iOS and Android apps that allow you to use your mobile to connect to and control client systems.

Even if remote-support software can’t solve every problem, it can give a huge boost to the efficiency of your IT helpdesk team – and that, in turn, will boost business productivity.

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