Express lane to telepresence

The product line starts with LifeSize Express 200, which we tested. The codec (main unit) is about the size of an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper and a little over 1 inch thick. LifeSize Team lets you add an additional HD camera. LifeSize Room ups video to 1080p quality. And the Conference solutions, with four monitors, compete favorable with the HP, Cisco, and Teliris products — but at one-tenth the cost.

Common across all LifeSize products is superb audio and video performance. Video starts at high-definition 1,280-by-720-pixel resolution over the open Internet (as long as you have between 1Mbps and 2Mbps bandwidth). Therefore, there's no incremental networking cost. Full-duplex, high definition audio (with echo cancellation) lets participants have natural conversations. Dual streaming permits sharing of a computer screen or other digital video source.

Unlike high-end solutions, which are sometimes too heavy to be installed in standard conference rooms, all LifeSize systems can be placed inside of any office space, with no special lights or other physical requirements.

Moreover, standards are extensive (H.261, H.263, H.263+, H.264, and H.239), so LifeSize systems can interoperate with most other standards-compliance conferencing systems, without a gateway.

Hooking up LifeSize Express 200's remarkably small codec is simple because the backplane is uncluttered, sockets are logically arranged, and the number of cables is kept to a minimum. I made five easy connections: power, network, camera, HD video monitor (using a single HDMI cable for both audio and video), and microphone pod. The just-released model we tested has a second HDMI output to connect another HD monitor (which is used to display content from a PC).

After making a few initial settings, such as creating a room password, via the remote control, we were ready to make my first call. In all, Iwe went from unboxing to making my first call in about 15 minutes.

Advanced configuration is done from a Web-based management tool, which is localized for 14 languages. The context-sensitive user interface makes it easy to create address book entries (up to 1,000 local entries are possible), change video or networking settings, and perform other similar tasks.

The difference between the two Express 200 models is that the lower-priced unit has a fixed autofocus camera, while the more expensive system that we tested includes an upgraded PTZ camera. In quantity, its 10 presets (any combination of pan, tilt, and zoom settings) don't match the 100 you get with the Polycom QDX 6000 but should be ample for most situations. Moreover, LifeSize camera's autofocus worked quickly and reliably.

Compared to the Polycom system, the high-definition camera required more room illumination to produce a picture with natural-looking skin tones and moderate contrast. However, LifeSize pulled ahead in video quality. The true high resolution (even though it's limited to 720p) made a noticeable difference in picture clarity, especially when zooming in on small objects. People, too, appeared more realistic.

The system includes a single high-definition microphone (a dual MicPod is optional). With full-duplex audio, conversations were natural, with no echo.

The LifeSize Express interface that's displayed on a room monitor is aesthetically pleasing — and performing common tasks didn't require more than one or two steps. For example, the main screen shows what the near camera is viewing along with options to place a call. Once you're in a call, the solidly constructed handheld remote is used to zoom the camera, take control of the far system's camera, and change video sources. As with the Polycom system, LifeSize also lets you control a lot of conference functions from the Web interface.

Naturally, HD video requires more bandwidth compared to standard definition. On many tests with my marginal cable modem connection, LifeSize automatically switched to a lower screen resolution to match available Internet speed; there are 50 resolutions for the best experience at any bandwidth. But when we were able to coax enough bandwidth for high-definition video, the experience was definitely very immersive.

Next, using the Web interface, we made appropriate directory entries for non-LifeSize systems that used other standards, such as H.323 video phones. LifeSize Express didn't have any trouble connecting to these systems.

On the security side, the Web interface let me disable HTTP, SSH, and Telenet services. Privacy of conferences is handled with H.235 encryption.

Overall, LifeSize Express 200 has a lot to love. The diminutive codec is quick to set up and reduces cable clutter. When there's adequate bandwidth, picture quality is outstanding. Using and managing the system, including connecting to standards-compliant competitors, requires minimal effort.

Yet this all comes with a price: the monetary cost and some of the flexibility you give up compared to Polycom's QDX 6000 (such as more video and audio inputs). For SMBs with the appropriate network infrastructure and the need for HD video, LifeSize is a wise choice. Yet for half the cost, Polycom makes a compelling argument, especially for organizations with a number of remote offices and home workers.

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