Video conferencing is an indispensable tool for modern businesses, especially in the hybrid work era. We tested the top vendors to see how they can help you put your best face forward.
How many video meetings have you taken this week? Chances are the answer isn't none. Video conferencing has become the new normal for most businesses, particularly those that have embraced hybrid work. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic made working from home a necessity, many companies were cutting back on work-related travel and using video conferencing to connect workers in satellite offices or even in conference rooms on different floors. This new reality means it's critical to invest in the best video conferencing system you can find.
The proprietary end-to-end systems you've probably seen deployed in smart conference rooms are still around, but the star players today are cloud services that require little more than an account and a webcam. We're focusing on these for this review roundup, since they're the most relevant to remote work. But first, you'll need a good understanding of how they work.
We've come a long way from the proprietary video conferencing systems of yesteryear. Today's cloud video services use TCP/IP as the primary network protocol. The majority of video calls go over the internet, rather than a private LAN. Also, their hardware support is generally open, meaning you can use whatever webcam or microphone works with your computing device. These new services often support an entirely web browser-based experience without the need to install any app (though a standalone app usually gives the best experience). Mobile devices are typically supported too, including apps for Android, Chrome OS, and iOS.
The challenge with these systems is that they typically don't interoperate. For example, you can't attend a video conference initiated in Microsoft Teams using a Cisco Webex meeting client. That means that if your workers need to join a video meeting with a company that uses a different system than yours, they'll either need to install a compatible client or rely on their browsers. On the other hand, the advantage is that these systems no longer require one large system purchase. Instead, they are services offered on a per-user or per-host subscription basis (see below for more about hosts). This can seriously reduce costs, as we'll see later.
Modern video conferencing systems also offer a big bucket of new capabilities that older systems never had. Best-in-class video conferencing services let users share their screens, remotely access one another's desktops, chat via text, exchange files, communicate via digital whiteboards, and even broadcast conferences to large groups of passive viewers (like webinars). Some are part of business-geared Voice-over-IP (VoIP) packages that let you dynamically change a voice call to a video call or initiate a shared meeting at the touch of a button without ever losing the original connection.
Those features are great for central offices, but they're also fantastic communication aids for work-from-home scenarios, especially when viewed through a long-term lens. However, video conferencing can go even further. For example, it's a perfect tool for addressing customers' support questions live or interacting with customers in real-time during a webinar. These and other factors are likely to continue to drive user adoption of these services for at least the next few years, as shown by growth projections from Fortune Business Insights(Opens in a new window):
(Source: Fortune Business Insights)
Many of us were introduced to video conferencing in the COVID-19 era. But even pre-pandemic, many small to midsize businesses (SMBs) spread across geographic locations. While that trend has both cost and hiring benefits to most companies, it also brings complex challenges for communication. Face-to-face meetings often aren't feasible due to limits on travel expenditures, and that's also true for customers and partners. This is where video conferencing can deliver a serious boost to your company's bottom line.
Even without considering geography, video conferencing can save money. Many of the new collaboration features included with this round of contenders aim to automate tasks that used to cost extra. Two prime examples are meeting transcription and recording.
In older, proprietary systems, recording a meeting meant either a separate camera or a third-party microphone for audio-only recordings, plus server space for storage. Modern services have automated recording that you can initiate with the press of a button and then automatically save the recording to the cloud and auto-share it with all meeting attendees.
Transcription, too, used to cost extra, with meeting managers sending an audio recording to a transcription service. Many new video conferencing services now contain artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of virtual meeting assistants that manage things like attendance tracking and transcribing meetings directly to PDF or Microsoft Word documents. They can then send those docs to everyone in the discussion or save them in shared cloud storage.
As with many software services, video conferencing providers offer multiple pricing tiers. The prices quoted in our reviews are typically for the vendor's middle pricing tier, and those are usually charged on a per-user per-month basis. For more pricing information, click through to the individual reviews. Most video conferencing services offer free trials, typically for 30 days, and many don't require a credit card. That means you don't have to worry about being charged automatically when the trial ends.
Most services offer free plans with a limited feature set. These can be great for individuals who want to reach friends and family, or for distributed teams who don't plan to spend a lot of time in conferences. Once you move to a paid tier, however, you need to pay attention to pricing details. For example, many products tested charge differently for hosts and users. Digging through the fine print, you'll find that hosts are users that can initiate meetings. Not all companies need to make every user a host, depending on how your organization handles collaboration. That can have a significant impact on your overall price, so be sure to nail down the details before buying.
Many services scale their pricing based on the number of hosts and attendees you need. That's why we recommend not just using the features in our top-rated video conferencing services; you should also leverage that trial time to experiment with how many users need to have meeting manager status. In other words, evaluate how video conferencing best fits your organization's culture and workflows.
Generally, services that are priced per host instead of per user are more cost-effective for webinar-type environments, where a few hosts will present to many attendees (users). Plans that are priced per user tend to be more attractive to collaborative-style engagements where anyone could start a meeting.
Another price consideration is hardware. Most every laptop has a microphone and a serviceable (if fairly mediocre) integrated webcam. Some laptops, such as the 2021 Apple MacBook Pro and Microsoft Surface, ship with high-quality 1080p webcams, and the same goes for many higher-end mobile devices.
Desktop PCs, however, will need additional hardware. If you're looking for enhanced clarity of sound or video, you'll need the best microphones and high-end webcams you can get. Depending on how many desktops and conference rooms you're looking to outfit this way, you can significantly affect the overall cost of your video conferencing solution, so you should budget for that upfront.
(Photo: Ariel Skelley / Getty Images)
Because video conferencing is likely to be a new way of working for many employees, which in turn means a platform's ease of use is a great place to compare one vendor's capabilities with another's.
In each review, we discuss the ease of signing up, creating a meeting, inviting participants, and setting up audio and video controls for each review. We also look at the user experience (UX) from the meeting invitees' point of view and how easy it is to access smart meeting controls. That covers whiteboard-style collaboration and file sharing, annotation, and the virtual assistant features mentioned above.
We've also tested each service's prominent features, but it's up to you to decide which features you need most. Do you need dial-in numbers, VoIP support, or both? How about features like screen sharing or remote control? Some services offer both teleconferencing with dial-in numbers (local or toll-free) and VoIP calling, while some offer just one or the other. A few offer international dial-in numbers.
All of the products reviewed offer video calls via webcam, which is a feature that's creeping into several team messaging platforms, like Microsoft Teams and Slack. In Teams' case, this is a complete video conferencing solution, which is why we've reviewed it here. On the other hand, Slack and some of its competitors have only implemented person-to-person video calling, which is why we haven't included them in this roundup.
However, Slack's strength in this regard (and it's a strength shared by its competitors) is its very long list of out-of-the-box integration options. While you can only do person-to-person video. inside Slack itself, the platform also integrates with Google Workspace, Teams, Zoom, and a host of other communications platforms, including the ones we've reviewed here. A skilled Slack administrator can build full meeting functionality this way.
In all of these reviews, we hosted and joined meetings to test the experience of registered and non-registered users alike. We made sure to outline how easy it is to join a meeting, including whether a participant needs to download software before joining (which could cause a delay). When that's the case, it's important to communicate with employees about hardware compatibility and your preferred browser. Other services simply require that attendees enter a code to access the meeting.
Our reviews also cover the host's administration features. The best services let you set up various types of meetings, such as lecture-style meetings where all participants are muted, or a discussion or Q&A mode in which presenters can mute and unmute participants as needed. Other options include enabling and disabling webcams, locking latecomers out of a meeting, creating a waiting room while preparing for the meeting, and allowing break-out sessions.
For presentations, screen sharing is essential. But so are more granular options, such as the ability to share just one , document, image, or application (Microsoft PowerPoint, for example), not just your entire desktop. Most of the video conferencing services in this roundup also offer a text chat mode not only during a meeting but sometimes outside a video call, too.
During a trial, you should experiment with all these features and think carefully about how much actual collaboration you need in your various meetings. That means evaluating the service with more than just IT personnel. You should also include stakeholders from your various departments, so you've got an accurate representation of the different kinds of gatherings your employees hold between themselves and folks outside the organization.
Unfortunately, even in a centralized network like the one in your main office, working with any stream-dependent app, and especially video, becomes trickier the larger the network and the more apps there are competing for bandwidth. If you're running all or part of your solution on a high-traffic network, some network settings may need tweaking by your IT staff to minimize video artifacts, stuttering, or excessive buffering that pauses the stream.
The situation is even more complicated for remote workers. This could be a persistent problem for your IT help desk personnel, who will have little control over the consumer devices and home network routers that will power your remote employees' home offices. Then there are additional peripherals, such as webcams and microphones. Most of these weren't purchased by the IT department, which means IT support staffers haven't been trained to service them. All of this makes supporting those home users on an end-to-end basis very difficult. That's not even considering the conditions on the internet, which handles most of the network traffic (and is something that your IT department doesn't control, either).
Most businesses will have little choice but to handle this problem on a case-by-case basis. If an IT pro can service a router remotely, that's what happens. If not, then it's down to either sending the device to a central location to be reconfigured, or walking the employee through the required steps over the phone.
Because of these concerns, it's a good idea to develop long-term solutions for remote workers. For example, IT could pre-configure a number of router models and then distribute them to remote workers so that everyone is using the same platform.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) are another related problem. Many businesses require employees to use these services when working remotely, both to protect themselves from cyber-attacks and to protect corporate data. Because they use encryption, VPNs can often cause bandwidth or throughput problems that affect video streaming performance. They're also run by companies other than your video conferencing vendor, so supporting the combination of the two usually ends up as an internal problem.
To help, you'll need to investigate VPN offerings for remote connections and potentially work with your IT staff to implement Quality of Service (QoS) features on both your main network and users' home networks. That'll help protect the bandwidth required during your video conferences. Still, be aware that the public internet remains its own beast and problems will inevitably arise that are outside the control of your IT staff.
Don't discount support resources from your vendor. The best video conferencing services offer phone, email, and chat support in addition to extensive online documentation. End-user support in this manner may cost extra money, but it's worth considering if your IT staff is small. Checking for a professional services arm that helps train users and IT pros is another important factor, and an active user community is a good resource, too.