Friday, June 30, 2006

Polycom Communicator Review!

My good friend Elaine Shuck, Polycom Corporation’s Education Market Coordinator, came through for me today in a big way with FedEx delivery of a new Polycom Communicator. This device has been being trumpeted for a couple of months now as the company’s new solution for quality Voice Over IP telecommunications and I intended to take it for a ride around the virtual block to see what it could do. Here's the review.

First of all I have to disclaim: I have no affiliation with Polycom other than being a member of the Polycom User Group and a faithful user of their higher-end IVC solutions in education for many years. Secondly, I’m pleased to announce that it soooooooo matches my laptop, a Dell Inspiron 600m, the longest-life computer I’ve ever owned and an appendage of importance to me equal to that of either of my hands (you might have to read that last phrase out loud a few times but I'm stickin' with it). The metallic blue finish of the one she sent me goes well with the Inspiron’s color scheme. I’m already impressed, from a stylistic perspective (and that's only half kidding!).

I popped in the CD labeled “Driver/Software Install—Microsoft Windows XP Only, Version 1.0” and it fired up with a menu interface with two selections: “Download Polycom Communicator Software Now” and “Download Skype Software Now.” Since I’m a regular Skyper I don’t need that, I just clicked on the first button and quickly downloaded the 7.05 Mb .exe setup file to my desktop. However, there is a voucher for 30 minutes of Skype Out time and 1 month of Voicemail service included in the setup packet and I plan to see if it'll apply to my existing account later. Probably not, but it's worth a try!

Firing up the downloaded setup file, I selected English from the 8 optional languages. I accepted the terms of the license agreement (only use the software with this device, don’t reverse engineer it, and don’t lease it or use it illegally—pretty standard, though there is an explicit grant of rights to resell it as long as you don’t retain a copy: pretty cool). Uh-oh, after clicking to install a driver I got a warning that the product hasn’t been certified Windows compliant. Oh, well, I forged ahead anyway. I usually do. I’ve received this message upon install in the past with certain webcams or other software—like some Griffin Technology iPod hardware drivers, some webcams, and most anything Apple related—and sometimes, though not always, it can be a harbinger of conflicts that can cripple the hardware down the road. However, after the experiences which follow, I'm convinced that this will not be the case with this one. The amazing clarity its design produces seems miles beyond that of any other I've used.

Once plugging in the device per instructions, I clicked to update and was informed “the current installed version is older than the newer version: Do you want to update?" I said, yes: I’m no dummy. The software then began “checking for DFU mode” and continued doing so seemingly interminably, finally resulting in a message that the update was unsuccessful and the device “unusable until update is complete.”

I followed instructions to unplug and replug the device (the USB cable has a cleverly designed little case in the back of the unit--something many other devices should consider) and Windows told me it was going out to look on the Internet for the software. Now, gentle reader, this is usually the bell of doom during a software update, because Windows virtually NEVER finds the software that it is looking for. I made plans to hit the back button and try reloading the drivers from the download on my desktop, but instead, ever the optimist, clicked retry. Amazing! It found the software, although the interface did pop me another not-certified-as-Windows-compliant warning. I went ahead manfully and after a brief reprise of “searching for DFU mode” it found the DFU (whatever that is) and completed installation. Success! Now per instructions I unplugged and replugged the device again.

NOTE: Now switching to present tense to enhance reader experience.

Looks promising. Let’s see what Skype does with it! Ha, the speaker works! That tasty little geeky slurping audio that Skype makes when it connects plays through the built in speaker, clear as a proverbial bell! I don’t know how big the speaker is, but the diameter of its cover is about 2 inches, clearly larger than my Dell notebook built-ins. The thing sports not one but two microphones, with a “7-foot microphone range…ideal for one-on-one or group conversations over Skype.”

WOW. Very very very very neat. My first call is to Elaine in South Dakota and I swear it sounds like she’s on her landline down the block, instead of on her PC in her home office in Sturgis, South Dakota. No lag. Yes, I said that: NO lag. My wife came out to my study to yell at me to come inside and help with dinner and instead of giving me the old one-two punch to the laptop she joined into a lovely conversation with Elaine. This thing rocks, ya’ll. Over the next few days and during NECC I’ll be testing this out with Skype (the service Polycom promotes for the unit), Polycom PVX, Sightspeed, iVisit, and anything else I can get my hands on. Tune in later for more! For now, thanks, Elaine and Polycom, for the demo unit: Aside from the slight glitchiness of the installation this device performs better than I could have dreamed it would. I think you’re gonna sell a TON of these things.

See you in San Diego!

P.S., The following morning I called my friend Jason Barnard in Mauritus, a tiny island off the east coast of Madagascar. Jason is the creator of the best children's educational/play website I know of,, and we chat over Skype frequently. I officially continue to be amazed at the Polycom Communicator's functionality. Jason and I usually encounter amazing lag and echo and he reports, though he doesn't have the same gearat his end, very little of either. I barely heard some echo despite the fact that his setup is just PC speakers and a mic. Usually our conversations entail my dealing with the irritating echo while trying to speak. Ever experience that? It's kind of other-worldly and the brain doesn't like it. My new little gadget, while not eliminating it completely, does reduce it to very manageable scale.

Finally, this device is excellent for music, ya'll. I have a couple of sets of folding Radio Shack speakers that plug into the headset line-out jack of my laptop for a pretty good listening experience while traveling, say, when I want to listen to a podcast or my new Johnny Cash "Personal Files" album while I work. I'll now be using my Communicator in their stead: The audio quality is, oh, 10 times better. I'll still have to use the other speakers for my iPod, though, maybe Polycom could look at adding a powered line-in option for that!

Cheers, and again, see you at NECC in San Diego!!!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Polycom Communicator Ships

Hey, ya'll,

A few posts ago I mentioned that I'd heard tell of a new device that offers great promise in our educational collaborative arena, the Polycom Communicator (read the post again).

Despite the appearance of blatantly advertising one vendor's product over another (and because there really is no comparable product from another vendor :), I'm pasting in text from an announcement email I got from the Polycom User's Group this morning to let you look for yourself. This product figures to be very very useful to those of us interested in collaboration, and used in tandem with Skype video (unless of course Congress decides to tax VOIP to death) might well put us on the way to letting a classroom full of kids see and talk to another classroom "At a Distance" (cue the music).

Here 'tis:

Dear Scott,

Polycom® Communicator gives you the ultimate hands-free Internet calling experience with Skype.

The Skype-certified Polycom Communicator enables crystal-clear, natural conversations when using Skype. Enjoy the freedom of not wearing your headset for hands-free Skype calls, or plug into the built-in stereo headphone port for private conversations.

*High-fidelity wideband audio for the best possible Skype experience
*Hardware supports up to 22kHz for CD-quality music or presentation audio
*Convenient buttons to launch Skype, pick up and hang up calls, and control volume and mute
*Integrated USB cable stores inside the unit for portability and convenience
*Two high-quality 360-degree microphones
*Built-in stereo headphone port

To purchase Polycom Communicator, contact your Polycom channel partner, or visit the Polycom Web Store.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

NECC Attendees' Resource!

Hey, ya'll,

If you are going to NECC in San Diego (or travelling to any major US city this summer, for that matter) you really need the free "Schmap Player!" Read about it at Jake Ludington's MediaBlab then download it. WOW.

See you there. I'll be the one at a San Diego tourist attraction consulting my personalized printed-out Schmap guidebook!

Note to Kecia: I have now fulfilled my duties as co-director (with Joan Roehre) of the Distance Ed-Tech Team's social activities committee. LOL

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

HP's "Halo," IVC Built for Shrek

If you and/or your company/institution has a spare half a million bucks and wants the real deal for an IVC room outfitted with "an array of equipment...[that] makes sure that there is no interruption in the flow of data that might interfere with the illusion that you’re in a meeting, not a videoconference," HP and Dreamworks have a Halo Collaboration Studio room for you. Oh, yeah: I fergot to mention that your team on the other end needs one of these rooms, too.

There's an interesting article about the system, originally designed for remote collaboration between teams during the development of the hit movie "Shrek," at Canadian Technology News's website. Give "A videoconferencing system built for Shrek" by Lynn Greiner a read, if only to see how the other half lives and perhaps to further fuel your commitment to find a cheaper but viable soluton (pic from the "HP Interactive Press Kit" detailing the technology).

Go Deeper:

“The problem with video conferencing to a large extent is that it doesn’t actually help us get things done,” a quote from an article linked from the Halo one, illustrates the question the article raises--is IVC "a solution looking for a problem?" Just to keep yourself in balance, give "You want to have it but do you need it?" by Grant Buckler a read, too. No one can say DestopIVC isn't fairfair!

Cheers, and you better get packin' for NECC in just 3 weeks!!!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Jake Ludington on Sightspeed

Ah, de news. Tech guru and computer media expert Jake Ludington recently issued a brief review of one of my favorite desktop IVC options, Sightspeed. He says, "Think of this as the Skype of video communication, with outstanding image quality and convenient conferencing between your Mac and PC friends. The basic version is free. If you want to communicate with multiple people simultaneously, SightSpeed Pro is available for $49.95 per year and includes a free Webcam..."

Read the whole piece.

While you're there you might consider subscribing to any of his digital newsletters. I subscribe to the "Digital Lifestyle" one!

Sightspeed has thrown into the VOIP warz with the new addition of audio only calls. I agree with Jake that it has miles to go before posing any real challenge to Skype in that arena, but a little competition can't help but be good for the wee end users (that's us, pilgrim).