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!!!


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