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Midrange telepresence system

Plenty of small, geographically dispersed teams within large organizations can benefit from telepresence. The same holds true for small and midsized businesses. However, the technology may seem impractical for these scenarios, due to its notoriously high price.

Whereas higher-end telepresence products do come with large price tag, some vendors also offer alternatives that deliver a similar, if not identical, face-to-face experience — far more affordably. You won't get all the bells and whistles of a dedicated telepresence suite, but you may find these types of solutions can put a big dent in your travel budget while boosting productivity.

We had a chance to test the Polycom QDX 6000, which offers small, power-saving desktop hardware, television-like remote controls for simple operation, plus quality audio and video. For the lower price, Polycom's video is standard definition (wide screen), and works over marginal Internet connections and lets you connect more audio and video sources

Best value and performance at low bandwidths

The Polycom QDX 6000 does not deliver high-definition video; that's reserved for the company's pricier HDX Series. Nevertheless, the system's wide-screen, DVD-quality (480p) images look great on large monitors.

Four more attributes make this system enticing: It's easy to set up and use; the $3,000 street price puts several units within buying reach; it's based on industry video standards (H.264, H.263, and H.261), so you can connect with partners that might have other vendors' hardware; and Polycom's own Lost Packet Recovery (LPR) algorithm delivers smooth video over slow or congested connections (as low as 256 Kbps).

We successfully tested a QDX 6000 by dialing in to an identical unit at Polycom (a cross-country hop over a relatively slow cable modem). Setup was simple, yet there are enough video and audio inputs and outputs to accommodate media-heavy meetings.

In the most basic scenario, you plug in the supplied wide-view camera and two wideband microphones, attach an Internet cable and power, and add your own wide-screen monitor (I used a Samsung 32-inch 6 Series high-definition LCD television connected using component video cables). With these five connections, the system was operational in less than five minutes.

Further, the main system, which can be placed on a table top or mounted in a rack cabinet, provides outputs for standard 4:3-format televisions and VGA computer monitors or projectors. Inputs from computers, other video cameras, VCRs, DVD players, and audio mixers are all accepted.

The system automatically gets an IP address and leads you through the minimum configuration steps to place a call, which is done from the remote control. More extensive system configuration, such as monitor setup and advanced network settings, is performed from a Web interface.

From start to finish, we were conferencing in less than 10 minutes. In everyday use, you should be able to call others and enter a secure conference in a few seconds.

We were impressed with several other aspects of the QDX 6000. To begin, the studio-quality camera's performance is amazing, with sharpness and low-light color quality found in video cameras that could cost $3,000 alone. The 12X optical zoom let me zero in on people or items on the desktop; zooming, panning, and tilting (using the remote) was extremely smooth and fast.

The compact remote control is equally easy to use because of clearly labeled buttons and on-screen prompts that are readable from across a room. For example, with one press you can store (or recall) up to 100 preset camera positions, select a video source, or view far and near sites side-by-side.

Alternately, a free Polycom application (People+Content IP) lets you display the screen of a Windows computer to meeting participants without plugging the video output of the PC into the Polycom QDS 6000 system. To use this feature, all I did was load the software, enter the name of the conferencing system and password, then press the Graphics icon on the remote.

The Polycom StereoSurround microphones produced CD-quality audio with very good spatial separation. There's automatic gain control and noise suppression, which eliminates the need to play with any settings.

Our Comcast network speed is pretty bad (typically about 384Kbps to 512Kbps), so we didn't have to do anything special to test Lost Packet Recovery. With LifeSize and 5 percent packet loss, we saw broken video and artifacts. However, Polycom's QoS maintained clear video at the same 5% packet loss. LPR is especially beneficial for home workers or employees connected through wireless networks. Yet this feature could also prove essential for critical medical applications, such as where medical specialists would share X-rays or patient images.

Overall, with high-quality video and audio, multiple video inputs and outputs, and compatibility with other systems, the Polycom QDX 6000 delivered smooth and uninterrupted videoconferences. Sure, video on this model is standard-definition wide screen. But that's hardly a negative considering the low price, simplified installation, and performance at low bandwidths.

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