As more companies embrace telecommuting and seek customers around the globe, high-quality long-distance conferencing, over phone lines or the Web, is becoming essential. Teleconferencing is cheaper than ever, videoconferencing systems are easier than ever to use, and conferencing over the Web is virtually free. There are plenty of bargains to be had, even among the most cutting-edge tools. But you have to be a smart shopper. The sheer number of options is dizzying, and some new products are still plagued by the conferencing realm's longtime demons, namely hard-to-install hardware, unreliable connectivity, and poor sound and video quality. Here are six products and services that will help banish crackly conversations and fuzzy images for good.
Best for... Pin-drop sound quality
The LifeSize Phone
Cool features: Teleconferencing with a roomful of people on the other end is nobody's idea of fun, but LifeSize's design takes away some of the pain. The circular phone, which has 16 built-in microphones, provides more room coverage than typical models with fewer mics. The phone employs the same wide-band audio technology as the iPod. Another plus: It works with both VoIP and analog lines.
In action: Alan Greenberg, a partner and senior analyst at Wainhouse Research, a Duxbury, Massachusetts, research firm that specializes in conferencing products, has seen more than his share of phones. But when the LifeSize phone came across his desk for a review recently, he took notice. He now uses it to make client presentations and hold meetings with analysts around the country. "It's a new mindset for anyone who's used to traditional speakerphones, because you can stand as far away as you like," he says.
Price: $1,200 per phone
Best for... Secure multimedia conferencing
Cool features: MeetMeNow gives up to 10 people access to the same PC desktop during a conference call. The desktop's owner can restrict access to specific programs and files while allowing other participants to take control of the computer to, say, edit a document. Participants also can chat privately with one another during meetings, which are encrypted and password-protectable. And there's no hardware to buy--you simply download the software from MeetMeNow's site.
In action: Conducting effective product demonstrations with clients halfway across the globe is no easy feat. David Thompson and Robert Seidl, founders of Genius, an on- demand software company in San Mateo, California, give their demonstrations an in-person feel by using MeetMeNow. The partners and their 24 staffers use the service to conduct demos and train customers. "It's amazing," says Thompson. "I'll be showing a guy how to use our software, and we'll be working on the same program, but he's in India."
Price: $49 per month for unlimited meetings with up to 10 participants
Best for... Technophobes
D-Link i2eye Broadband VideoPhone
Cool features: The i2eye videophone is ideal for people who dread tinkering with finicky Web-conferencing software, since it doesn't require a computer. Users simply plug the device into a TV with one cable and into a broadband connection with another for instant videoconferencing via the Internet. The device sends and receives video at 30 frames per second, on par with Web-based video systems.
In action: Hands On Video Relay Services, based in Rocklin, California, relies on video links to translate phone calls between deaf and hearing people using sign language. D-Link's high-resolution picture makes the job easier for the company's call center operators. Hands On also recommends the video phone to its clients. The plug-and-play system is easy to hook up at home, in the office, or in a hotel, says Mark Bella, special-projects manager at Hands On. And the picture quality, he says, tops that of similarly priced systems. "You can understand people's expressions better," he says.
Best for... Videoconference junkies
Polycom's VSX 7000 Room System
Cool features: Not for occasional users, this pricey videoconferencing package makes the most sense for companies that need a dedicated system with top-quality audio and video suitable for a large conference room. The basic system comes with a camera, microphone, subwoofer speaker, and remote control. As companies expand, they can purchase add-ons, such as extra microphones and speakers.
In action: In the trucking industry, which has a turnover rate of more than 125 percent, it's crucial to forge a bond between employees and supervisors. So what happens if those two groups rarely meet? That was the problem facing Roehl Transport, a Marshfield, Wisconsin, trucking company. It solved it by connecting with new hires via three Polycom room systems, one for each of the company's locations. Fleet managers in Marshfield hold videoconferences and training sessions with new hires in Chicago and Atlanta. That's a lot of conferences--Roehl hires 1,600 drivers a year.
Price: $7,000 for the basic system; a fully loaded system is $12,000
Best for... Turning calls into podcasts
Cool features: FreeConferenceCall.com allows companies to hold conference calls with up to 96 participants at no charge. The site recently unveiled a service that automatically converts those calls into podcasts that are e-mailed to the call's host and can be uploaded onto a company website or sent to participants.
In action: The International Coach Academy, a company in Melbourne, Australia, that trains life coaches and business coaches all over the world, has used FreeConferenceCall.com for years. ICA now uses the company's podcast service to create course materials on the fly. Recordings of ICA's teleconference classes are delivered to the e-mail box of chief learning officer Karen Cappello, who sets aside the best of the sessions. ICA then posts those podcasts on its website and sells them along with its textbooks; CDs loaded with the podcasts make great giveaways for new registrants to the company's training program. Cappello also uses the service to create customer testimonials. "One of our salespeople calls clients and asks them questions, and it makes a great little file," she says.
Best for... Dipping your toe into video
Logitech QuickCam Fusion
Cool features: Internet videoconferencing is becoming more popular, and Logitech's new webcam is an inexpensive way to give it a try. The camera, which sits on top of a computer monitor, uses Logitech's proprietary RightLight technology to sharpen the image. A high-quality built-in mic allows users to converse without headsets. The webcam works with most video chat software.
In action: Parker Clack and Ron Epstein knew that running a business hundreds of miles away from each other wouldn't be easy. The founders of Home Theater Forum, a home theater discussion board, live in Missouri and New Jersey, respectively. They liked the idea of holding videoconferences over the Web to get more face time with each other, but they didn't want to squander money. The Logitech webcam offered the best of both worlds: a low price and a clear picture. It also rings your computer like a regular phone. Clack and Epstein now have several one- or two-hour-long video calls each week, without any per-minute charges.