Video conferencing (video enabled meetings) is a great way to bring your team members together when there is a geographic spread between your offices. It s also a great tool to use with vendors and customers. But there is always the budget challenge! There are many fabulous product available to build incredible video-enabled boardrooms but the costs can quickly spiral way out of the reach of small business.
Fortunately, you can build a pretty decent solution for not a lot of money. The key components are Skype for Business or Microsoft Teams (which you get with your Office 365 Business or Enterprise subscription), a good flat-panel TV, a reasonably spec’d PC, a decent webcam and, most importantly, a high-end echo and noise-cancelling speakerphone. Resist the urge to try and skimp on any of these components as each has its role to play in providing a good experience for all concerned.
Big screen TV’s are a dime a dozen so you have lots of choice. Look for a decent size to fit your wall keeping in mind that larger screen sizes make it easier to see from the far side of the boardroom table. Display quality is the critical factor; a fuzzy, low-quality screen just won’t cut it. HDMI or DisplayPort inputs (to match your PC) are the way to go.
You want decent CPU (i5 or i7), RAM and reasonable video capabilities. The CPU really comes into play if you conference in multiple attendees in a Skype/Teams video session. There is a lot of video and audio processing going on in the background. Resist the urge to save money with a low-end CPU machine (Celeron, Pentium, et al) as you will be shooting yourself in the foot. If you are looking for a small footprint machine the latest generation of Intel NUC’s are pretty decent choices, specially the latest i7 boxes. And don’t scrimp on RAM! A recommended combo is i7, 8GB and a small SSD along with Windows 10.
The camera is a critical piece to how well things work and you may have to try a couple to find one that works well with your room. Overall, the best experience will come from a camera with a wide and deep field of view (gets as much of your boardroom table in view as possible). Logitech and others make cameras specifically for video collaboration but you can make do with less costly “general purpose” cameras. Good examples are the Logitech C930E or Brio cams.
Surprisingly, this is probably the most critical piece of the puzzle! Sound, and specifically clarity of sound is the hardest thing to control and manage in a video conference situation. Echoing and muddy sound will frustrate everyone involved in a conference. Utilizing the TV speakers will pretty much guarantee sound echo problems, specially so for people on the other end of the conference connection. This is because the echo-cancellation built into Skype, the webcam mic (or standalone mic) and the PC can’t differentiate between the sounds you make in the boardroom and that coming out of the TV speakers. Echo and feedback are the natural outcome. You need to use a single device as mic and speaker to ensure good results. The best way to do this is to use a “speakerphone” on the boardroom table. These devices have sophisticated echo-cancellation built-in and they are sized to fit your room needs. Jabra, as an example, makes speakerphone models sized for 4 to more than 16 people in a room. And they have models that are optimized for Skype for Business. A decent speakerphone sized correctly makes a huge impact on the quality of your conferences.
Some general guidelines:
- Wire in the boardroom PC, don’t use WiFi! You want a solid, fast connection all the way back to your firewall.
- Tweak your firewall to be “hands off” on VoIP as much as possible. If your firewall vendor has recommendations on settings for Skype, follow them!
- Your Internet connection itself matters. Better bandwidth = happier conferencing. And, not surprisingly, fibre connections work much nicer than cable modem connections.
If you keep a sharp eye on your spending you can come in well below the entry point for various “boardroom video conference” packages and still have respectable capabilities. We equipped two boardrooms at my company in this fashion and are very pleased with the results. We have multiple video conferences every week pulling together participants from our three offices.