Easy Online Meetings
Setting up a Web conference was impressively simple, although it did involve downloading a piece of software to enable content sharing among participants. This somewhat undermines the advantage of a no-download browser-based application.
Still, this may be the best feature of Virtual Office Pro. It also supports video conferencing, although we did not test video for this article.
It's supposedly possible to drag and drop a contact from the main contact list to the meeting participants list in the set-up window, but we could not make this feature work. (Keying in the first few letters of a person's name, however, lets you add them quickly to the participants list.)
Each participant receives an email with time and dial-in number for the meeting. Participants have to say their name, which is then announced to other participants when the person joins.
When the meeting starts, or before, the organizer can click the Open Content Sharing button. The first time it's used, this begins the process of downloading and installing the content sharing application. It took less than 90 seconds over a fast Internet connection on our two-year old quad-core PC.
Once the application has been downloaded, the button launches a tabbed window within the Virtual Office Online window showing the meeting interface. The organizer chooses whether to share just one application window -- selecting it from a gallery of thumbnails -- or their entire Windows screen. The application or screen image then appears in the main meeting window.
Buttons to the left of the main window let you access a chat window for sending instant text messages to other participants. It's possible to set up private sidebar conversations while the main meeting progresses using the voice/video connection.
Quick Internet Faxing
Sending a fax is even simpler. Simply click the button from the home screen to launch the fax window, fill in the fax phone number, recipient name, subject and notes and add an attachment (a document from your hard drive) by clicking the Add Attachment button.
While the interface generally works well, we were frustrated that some functions do not work properly in Google's Chrome browser -- despite one 8x8 technical support agent telling us that problems with Chrome had not been reported before.
For example, when we went through the process to manually add contacts with Virtual Office Online in Chrome, the system said they were added, but no new contacts appeared in the My Contacts list. Some tabs also disappeared temporarily from the left-hand panel of the home page after re-logging in.
Poor Chrome Support
When we switched over to using Internet Explorer emulation in Chrome, the contacts added earlier still did not appear, but new contacts added did.
Call recording also worked imperfectly, with Virtual Office Online (in Internet Explorer) in some cases reporting that it could not start a recording at the beginning of a call. Call recordings listed in the Media list of My Inbox also did not play in some cases. Both these problems were intermittent.
Call quality was the most troubling problem noted. We placed a limited number of test calls using Virtual Office Online. The very first call, to 8x8 technical support, was so bad -- with the party at the other end reporting severe break-up -- that it could not support a normal conversation.
Other calls exhibited some latency or delay in voices reaching each other -- which results in slightly stilted conversations -- as well as packet jitter, which causes voices to break up, and occasional low volume levels.
In the earlier review of 8x8 Virtual Office using IP desk sets, which used the same computer and Internet set-up, call and voice quality were generally above average, suggesting the problem in this case is with the softphone.
Despite questionable call quality when using the softphone, and despite the noted problems with the online interface and the lack of an Outlook database import function, we think Virtual Office Pro is a good deal. It's worth considering by small businesses looking for a way to quickly and easily add unified communications.
Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte
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