One way to get into video conferencing is to set aside a dedicated room and fill it with expensive specialised equipment. Another is to replace your desktop PC monitor with a Sony PCS-TL30, a 17-inch LCD display which, at the flick of switch, can be turned into a dedicated video conferencing terminal.
Like most Sony products, the PCS-TL30 is well made and very good looking. It’s a little thicker than your average PC display, but that’s to be expected given the additional electronics inside. There’s also a built-in camera on the top which you can turn on and off simply by sliding a shutter across the lens. This also mutes the sound for privacy during a video call should you, for example, need to answer the phone or make faces at the person at the other end.
Calls are made using TCP/IP over the Internet, so the Sony monitor also sports its own Ethernet interface and a mouse, enabling it to be used as a standalone device should you want. However, its real advantage comes from being able to double up as a PC monitor, where you can either use the Sony pointer or save space by sharing the existing PC mouse in both desktop and video conferencing modes.
Setup is via a custom graphical interface which is neither pretty nor quick, but does the job. Plus there’s very little to do, other than provide details of how to connect to the Internet. That done, you make a call by pressing a button on the front of the monitor then selecting either an existing address book entry or, if you’re just starting, the IP address of the other video conferencing system.
The PCS-TL30 comes with support for lots of different codecs, the software that compresses and encodes video and audio data streams for transmission. As such it can be used with a variety of other video conferencing systems besides talking directly to another PCS-TL30. It can even join a multi-point conference, although only as a participant, with no facility to host conferences.
We tested it using a point-to-point link to the offices of Imago, the UK distributor of the product. In this configuration the latest H.264 codec can be used which allows a high level of compression giving good results over relatively low bandwidth links. That including broadband ADSL which, as the name implies, is a service with a relatively slow uplink, the speed of which is, typically, the limiting factor when it comes to call quality.
Still, we got reasonable results on connections as low as 128Kbps and good quality at 256Kbps. OK, the picture did break-up and freeze at times, but sound reproduction was excellent and most of the time it was on a par with more traditional ISDN conference calls. Moreover, the Sony monitor has built-in adaptive rate controls to automatically adjust frame and transfer rates to suit the prevailing conditions, with a neat on-screen meter to show you how much bandwidth is currently available and how much you’re using.
We found it very workable and liked the ability to size the video conferencing window and display it alongside the PC desktop, enabling us to use PC at the same time. Plus, by fitting the optional Data Solution Module (£699 + VAT) we were able to display and share the attached desktop with the other participant.
At a pound under two grand you wouldn’t call it cheap, with bigger and better PC monitors available for a fraction of the price. However, it’s not just a monitor and compared to the cost of more traditional video conferencing solutions it’s a snip. Plus you don’t need a dedicated room to house or use it, just a desktop.
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