HD videoconferencing kit for Lync and beyond

With our Office 365 migration complete for all users at the college we’ve started to turn our attentions to integrating Lync into our environment. One of our aims was to provide conference calling between the multiple sites the college is based across. These days the consumer world does 1:1 video calling with ease but we also wanted to have a system set up so a full room of users could connect across sites easily, without needing everyone signed into individual devices to do it.

Previously this kind of requirement would have seen 3rd party vendors’ eyes light up with pound signs; however with the software side now covered by Office 365 \ Lync all we needed was some decent hardware.

I remembered an article I read a while back about Google’s Chrome Box conferencing system that seemed to be sporting some fairly commodity-level kit. This interested me as we basically wanted the same setup but with the opposite vendor supplying the platform. A glance down the comments suggested a Logitech camera and Jabra conference mic, if it’s good enough for Google to support an HD system under their brand then it’s good enough for us!

Kit list

Both the Logitech camera and Jabra mic are part of Microsoft’s Lync-certified hardware compatibility list
Interestingly the Logitech camera appears in quite a few of the “Room Systems” from partner suppliers which further enhances its credentials.

Logitech C930e conference webcam
http://www.logitech.com/en-gb/product/webcam-c930e-business?crid=1252

Jabra SPEAK 510MS mic http://www.jabra.co.uk/products/pc_headsets/jabra_speak__510_series/jabra_speak_510_ms

D-Link 7 port powered USB hub
http://www.dlink.com/uk/en/home-solutions/connect/usb/dub-h7-7-port-usb-2-0-hub

Hands-on

Although the kit was purchased with Lync as the primary objective the timing worked out well for us; during last week we were asked to set up our conference room for a variety of web demonstrations and video calls. In each case the scenario was exactly as originally planned above; a room full of people all needing to provide input during the call.

With a deadline set the unboxing and setup commenced:

shiny new kit ready to go

shiny new kit ready to go

In terms of hardware the system is basically plug-and-play, although I did install the optional software for both pieces of kit that give some additional status reporting (Jabra) and camera control (Logitech).

The hardest part in our room was running the USB for the mic as the cable run is pretty much on the limit of the 5m USB limit. The powered USB hub will give us a few more options, maybe mounted underneath the conference table in the long-run. Alternatively something like an active USB extension cable can get around the 5m problem.

Logitech c930e

In terms of physical installation the camera sat securely on the top of our SMART E70 screen. The mounting clip has multiple pivot points which help it stay in place at both back and front of the screen you’re placing it on, which is a nice touch. There’s also a lens cap that can be fitted for when you definitely don’t want video being shown, again shows a bit of thought has gone into the design.

One hooked up the first thing that struck me about the camera is the wide field of view compared to standard webcams. It’s definitely an advantage in our setup, easily covering the full length and width of our conference table which has ~12 people around it when fully populated.

Video quality was smooth, something you don’t get with some cheaper cameras.  With standard lighting colours looked crisp, I did close the blinds at the far end of the room as bright sunlight coming through caused problems.

Initially the auto focus took a bit of time to adjust to the room but it got there after a couple of seconds, at which point all users around the table were clearly visible. The only downside is no optical zoom, although you can use the digital zoom via the camera’s control panel the results weren’t great (as you’d expect). For this reason you’ll need to use the c930e as a fixed camera; if you want something that’s going to move around for close-ups on an individual you might be better served by the Conferencecam BCC950 but it comes with a heftier price tag.

Audio wise the C930e covered the front half of the room well enough but volume dropped off towards the back. I was expecting that to some extent which was why I preferred a separate conference mic that could be placed at the centre of the audio source. In a smaller room you’ll likely be fine with the C930e’s mic alone.

Jabra Speak 510MS

The Jabra 510MS really impressed me; audio was clear from all areas of the table without fuss. The biggest challenge is running a suitable length USB cable as our conference PC is on the other side of the room, however as mentioned above a mixture of either USB hub or active extension cable should do the trick.

The UFO-esque design is rather unusual but I like it, little LEDs light up around the circumference of the device when you press input buttons and there’s also additional indicators for charging and Bluetooth. Sometimes it’s easy to knock the capacitative buttons by accident but easy enough to get back to where you were before.

Audio-wise the microphone worked perfectly, easily picking up users at both ends of the table. On conferences the user at the other end reported clear audio with GoToMeeting and Skype. My first test with Lync had the desktop client reporting “echo detected” but there does seem to be a fix listed in the latest firmware release notes so will run the update and try again to see if that solves it.

The 510MS does have a built-in speaker, although it did sound a bit on the tinny side. I’d recommend using a more powerful set of speakers for delivering audio (in our case a sound bar) but it’s basically a case of using the best tool for the job.

Conclusion

For both parts of the system you’re looking at around £200 to kit out a room, which for HD video \ audio is a fair deal I think. If you don’t need to cover a room full of people there are more affordable options out there, including a stand for your existing tablet 😉

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