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-- by James E. Powell
Reach out and see somebody-fast! Intel's ProShare Conferencing Video System 200 2.0a makes ISDN-based desktop videoconferencing a reality. Intel has packed just about everything you need in a single box, while eliminating videoconferencing's often-agonizing setup.
Like its competitive rival, PictureTel's Live200p (see WinLab Reviews, November 1996), ProShare will set you back by about $1,500. But that price includes a color camera, video capture and audio expansion boards, a headset (not ready in time for our tests) and Intel's excellent conferencing software.
Setup was easy; the documentation and setup program instructions explained where to plug in the hardware and how the software should be configured. The system took an extra boot cycle to work in Plug-and-Play mode, a minor inconvenience. ProShare displays your conference in multiple windows. Intel's camera produces sharp, crisp images; when you want privacy you can slide the protective cover over the lens.
The package supports the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) H.320 conferencing standard, as well as the newer T.120 multivendor data-collaboration standard. ProShare can host multiple users via a conference service. That's great if you're planning to conference with another Intel ProShare system or with newer systems, but connecting to most older videoconferencing systems will require you to fall back to the older H.320 standard and skip most of the data sharing (such as simultaneous editing of an Excel spreadsheet) for now.
Intel has cleverly
extended the video metaphor to other aspects of your workday. For instance, when you're out of the office, ProShare can function as a video answering machine. Another nice touch gives you the opportunity to store information about yourself in a business card format that other ProShare users can automatically download and store in their own phone books.
But there's much more to conferencing than simply watching talking heads on the screen. ProShare's document/conferencing capabilities, while not as sexy as its video attributes, may ultimately prove more useful between remote users and the central office. Participants can share applications and trade off mouse ownership, as well as exploit a Notebook window to share text and graphics documents.
The sharing functions generally worked well. ProShare packs plenty of power: It simultaneously displays video, shares an Excel spreadsheet and downloads a file in the background (at about 750KB per minute) without compromising its crystal-clear audio. One drawback: As a 16-bit program, ProShare won't preserve long filenames during file transfer.
At ISDN speeds the video is slightly jerky, running about 15 frames per second; it's less noticeable if you don't make sudden movements. A full-screen image, though slightly grainy, was flicker-free. With Plug-and-Play boards, you'll need two free IRQs and two free ISA slots; rival Live200p requires just one PCI slot.
At nearly $1,500, ProShare is more expensive than point-to-point solutions that use the Internet or ordinary telephone service. The trade-off is that you'll get high-quality video, excellent audio and foolproof software combined with flexibility and ease of use-all of which combine to put ProShare on our WinList.
SIDEBAR: The Internet Connection
ProShare offers excellent videoconferencing capabilities, but you may shy away from its relatively high cost. After all, with products like Microsoft's NetMeeting and a Connectix camera, you can be in a teleconference for less than $200. You can usually set up conference calls with a local call to your ISP.
The trade-offs, however, may make you believe that you get what you pay for. Video quality over the Internet is decidedly poorer than what ProShare offers. In our tests, NetMeeting video topped out at about 7 frames per second, even when connected to an ISDN line; ProShare's 15fps, while still jumpy compared to your favorite television show, was far less distracting. Furthermore, ProShare was better able to handle multiple tasks: Downloading a file in the background had little impact on picture quality, and audio quality remained exceptionally high.
ProShare's audio was outstanding, with little noticeable delay. NetMeeting audio can come in spurts and may be clipped, so you may find yourself often asking other conferees to repeat themselves.
While both NetMeeting and ProShare had good user interfaces and were easy to set up, we judged the quality of Intel's ProShare solution significantly better, meriting the extra cost.