Cisco TelePresence 500: Full collaboration

The InfoWorld Test Center gets its hands on Cisco's most affordable suite-oriented telepresence system

More affordable midrange telepresence systems, such as offerings from Polycom and LifeSize systems, offer fine picture and audio quality, along with usability. But in the overall product continuum, Cisco TelePresence System 500 is the most economical system that gives you the full experience of telepresence rooms.

The Cisco TelePresence System 500 I tried out was already installed at a regional office of a large enterprise. This turnkey system -- with monitor, pro-grade video camera, and built-in lighting -- creates much the same immersive experience as Cisco's high-end telepresence systems.

Cisco calls the System 500 "personal telepresence" because it's installed in a private office to connect one or two users to other individuals or to a larger group meetings. I tried the 230-pound pedestal-mounted hardware, but it's also available in a 65-pound (without pedestal and codec) configuration for wall mounting or placement on a credenza.

Although the system I used was already installed, initial setup looks to be straightforward. The internal Cisco Gigabit Ethernet switch connects to your network; the same RJ-45 interface supports a Cisco Unified IP Phone 7975G and Ethernet-attached PC. An administrator usually does networking and other configuration work through the Cisco TelePresence administrator Web interface.

Small, but powerful

You might expect the System 500 to take over a small room, but the opposite is true: The unit is a scant 1 foot deep and 3.2 feet wide. Unlike the systems reviewed that have discrete components (and require you to supply a monitor), Cisco's integrates the 37-inch high-definition display, manual-focus HD camera, microphone, speakers, and lighting in a modern-looking appliance.

One immediate benefit of this design is that you sit four to six feet away from the unit (the natural distance for face-to-face conversations). As such, I got that in-person experience, clearly seeing the expressions of participants at the far end and clearly hearing their speech. As a side note, microphone electronics are designed to eliminate interference from mobile phones.

The System 500's camera doesn't have any motion tracking, but it is calibrated so that you appear centered in the screen. Moreover, positioning lights around the monitor's bezel guide you so that you sit in the correct position.

Using this system was extremely easy. There's one-button speed dialing from the IP phone for up to 40 entries, or you can search through thousands of entries maintained by the Cisco Unified Communications Manager application. Calendar and scheduling is available from a Web-enabled application, but it must be installed and configured to work with your calendar and e-mail server.

All Cisco TelePresence systems support 720p or 1080p video resolutions with three quality levels, depending on the bandwidth available and how much capacity you allocate to telepresence; 3Mbps to 4Mbps (1080p) or 1Mbps to 3Mbps (720p) is recommended.

Reaching out

The site I visited had a wide-area T1 connection and 1.5Mbps reserved to the conferencing system; therefore, video was shown in 720p mode. Yet even at this resolution, the overall picture appeared better compared to Polycom or LifeSize. The major reason, I believe, is that Cisco's integrated lighting assembly throws soft, even illumination that eliminates facial shadows. My formal tests of the other systems were under the harsher fluorescent lighting typical of conference rooms. I also appreciated that Cisco's lighting activates only once a telepresence call begins, which helps provide a green solution.

I dialed another person using a System 500, and there wasn't any noticeable video or audio latency, even when the meeting was designated as secure (and thus encrypted).

System 500 lets you connect a PC or optional high-definition document to the codec. This content can be displayed on the main display (picture-in-picture) or on an optional secondary monitor. Since this information is often static, it's only transmitted at 5 fps; an optional codec provides full motion (30 fps) on the auto collaborate data channel. A nice touch, although certainly available with most off-the-shelf HDTVs, is that the System 500's monitor can double as a PC display when you're not in a conference.

Besides calling, other conferencing features are also accessed from the IP phone -- and they go beyond the low-cost products. For example, CiscoTelepresence Recording Studio lets you record high-quality video messages that can be played back on other Cisco endpoints or standard Web browser players.

Though I didn't have the opportunity to test, Cisco Telepresence Systems can interoperate with standards-based H.264 videoconferencing systems and other HD endpoints.

As a pure telepresence solution, Cisco has done a fine job of building a simple-to-use, all-in-one unit that combines lifelike HD video, quality audio, security, and compatibility with other conferencing systems. Then there are extra features, such as video recording, not standard with the low-end videoconferencing products I tested.

I was a little surprised that Telepresence System 500 doesn't accept the multiple video and audio sources of the Polycom QDX 6000, nor the camera panning and zooming that both Polycom and LifeSize offer. Yet I can appreciate that these features, when put in the hands of the wrong end-user, can diminish the picture quality and ruin the telepresence experience.

For larger enterprises, I understand the value Cisco TelePresence System 500 brings. With a street price of about $24,000, it would be a good fit for regional offices, since it works seamlessly with larger Cisco systems while providing the same rich telepresence experience. I also see it fitting right in to specialized markets, such as telemedicine. That said, I imagine it's too costly for the majority of telecommuting applications (even though Cisco has about 500 workers doing exactly that).

For those smaller offices and individuals, Polycom and LifeSize Express perform admirably.

Cisco Telepresence System 500

Cost: $33,900

Description: Includes 37-inch display, camera, microphone, speakers, and lighting in a small-footprint system. Available in free-standing pedestal, wall-mount, or tabletop configurations. Supports high-definition video (720p or 1080p) based on the H.264 video standard, and interoperates with H.323 videoconferencing systems.

Bottom Line: Cisco TelePresence System 500, installed in the private office, is designed for remote one-on-one meetings or for joining larger meetings. It features lifelike, high-definition video from a camera positioned for excellent eye contact. The all-in-one unit contains special lighting and is designed for optimal audio quality. System 500 includes extras such as video recording, and functions are easily controlled from an IP phone.