7 low-cost videoconferencing services: Which is best for your meeting?
These days, any computer with a webcam — and most current tablets and smartphones — can be a front-end to services that offer low-cost or free videoconferencing functionality. Services such as Skype and Google+ are offering alternatives to conferencing solutions that used to cost companies thousands of dollars.
In fact, many of these services have moved away from being formally installed apps, and can be invoked from most any kind of hardware client or OS platform through its browser. Some use Flash to run entirely in-browser; some deliver a binary executable on-demand through the browser, which runs as-is without needing to be installed; some still use a local client.
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In order to offer a better idea of how each of these teleconferencing applications worked, we’ve included a video that highlights the product’s best (and worst) aspects. You’ll find the video at the bottom of each review.
Most of the systems profiled here have many essential features in common, even at their most basic level, such as text chat (as well as voice/video chat) or the ability to share documents, applications or the entire desktop among conference attendees.
Features available in the more advanced tiers include the ability to record conferences, support for large numbers of people (that is, more than five or ten) and high-definition video. In all cases, there’s a moderator who has control over the conference room behavior (such as who has the floor or who can show his or her desktop to the rest of the members) using a central console.
Prices in these formerly expensive services have changed over the last couple of years. Entry-level pricing now starts at anywhere from $8 to $40 a month. Many companies provide trial periods or free usage tiers (albeit with some features missing).
I looked at seven major offerings, ranging from free adjuncts to popular social-networking systems to products with enterprise-level tiers; some needing a local client, some not.
To try them out, I held test videoconferences, using three participants on different platforms — both Windows and OS X, whenever possible. We looked at how the apps were deployed and how they were performed, and also for the presence of auxiliary features, such as the logging of discussions or tools for moderators and presenters.
While they may not be appropriate for some high-end uses, most of these services can offer solid, basic videoconferencing that can allow you to keep in touch with your remote colleagues and friends — and perhaps even get some work done.
How to record your conference
Not all conference apps or services have the built-in ability to record your meeting. If that’s the case with your chosen service, you’ll have to make use of a third-party app to record either just the audio or audio and video from the desktop.
Bear in mind that recording video from the desktop is going to generate big files. If you just want to record audio only, which will be a big space-saver, any number of programs can do this. Windows’ own Sound Recorder is rather meager, but the open-source audio app Audacity has a better range of features.
Other programs can capture all activity on the desktop as a video stream, no matter what applications are running. Camtasia is one of the best-known such programs, but at $299 it might be a bit steep for some individuals.
Free alternatives do exist, and I used one such program, CamStudio. to generate the video captures created for this article. CamStudio has its own limitations, though — the resulting files can be huge for only a few minutes of capture, and capture files over 2GB sometimes come out broken.
Some third-party apps work in concert with a given service or program. Evaer. for instance, is designed to record Skype voice and video calls. It runs as a separate application, but uses a Skype plugin to synchronize the recording actions so calls can be recorded automatically.
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