See Me, Hear Me: Videoconferencing You Can Afford - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
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Take a Listen to HearMe
HearMe, a division of online communications pioneer AVM Software, has also been around for a few years and has won some accolades from the trade media. It offers a business conferencing/calling service that includes limited screen/application sharing.

Unlike SightSpeed, it's a browser-based application (currently requiring Microsoft Internet Explorer), although users do have to download and install a plugin to make it work.

Also unlike SightSpeed, it's possible—precisely because it's browser-based—to invite non-registered users into a conference. They of course have to download and install the plug-in as part of the process of responding to an invitation to their first HearMe meeting.

HearMe rents dedicated online "meeting rooms" to companies. The rooms, each with a unique URL, can accommodate different numbers of people. Prices range from $29 a month (or $278 if paid yearly) for a five-person room, to $449 a month ($4,310 yearly) for a 150-person room. It's of course possible to rent multiple rooms. The company also provides a free one-time, 14-day trial of the service, which we used in testing.

Signing up for the service is relatively painless, although you do have to provide a credit card number to get the 14-day trial. Whatever companies like HearMe say, in our opinion this is unnecessary, and annoying. It's hard not to think that they're just hoping to get a month, or more, of fees should you forget to cancel.

HearMe's user interface is not as friendly as SightSpeed's. For example, when subscribers log in to the service, they see a text-only page with a list of the rooms to which they have access. When they click on one, a long and somewhat confusing room administration page pops up—again, all text.

An organizer can click the Send Invitations link on this page, which initiates sending an e-mail using his default e-mail client. The automatically created message contains a link to the HearMe room's URL. Alternatively, he could copy and paste the room URL into an IM invitation, or use the Invite button in the room itself.

When recipients click the link in the invitation message, they go to a login page where they're asked to enter name and password. Because both parties in our test were registered HearMe subscribers—HearMe administrators as it were—when we were behaving as participants rather than organizers, we tried to enter our HearMe account names and passwords.

This generated a mystifying error message. What the service really wanted was an attendee nickname, which could be made up on the spot (and then used in subsequent HearMe meetings) and a personal password.

The confusion was arguably a reflection of the testers' reluctance to read instructions ahead of time, but the fact is, there are no instructions actually provided at this dialog, which there should be since many using it will be first-timers.

The organizer launches a meeting by clicking on a link in the room administration page. This takes you to a page with a single link to Launch Meeting, which in turn initiates a completely separate login procedure. You again have to enter the account name and password selected when signing up for the service.

This all seems a little clumsy. Plus, on one occasion, the application failed to launch the meeting on the first attempt, although clicking Try Again remedied the problem.

The meeting room features a bar across the top that displays participants' video windows, a work area in the middle for displaying a chat text and/or shared document screens, a panel at right showing participants' names and their connection status, and a chat-text entry window and button bar at the bottom.

A Settings & Preferences button on the bar gives participants access to configuration routines that semi-automatically set up audio and video components on their system.

Video windows are double or more the size they are in multi-party SightSpeed calls—which means it's somewhat easier to see body language and facial expressions—but smaller than in two-way SightSpeed calls. With HearMe, though, you can choose to display video in separate windows at several different sizes. It's also possible to hide your own video window.

Video was marginally more pixilated at HearMe's standard size than in SightSpeed's standard multi-party video windows. Audio quality in test calls was solid, but again, not quite as good as Skype at its very best.

HearMe offers three alternatives for managing participants, selectable from a pop-up submenu on the button bar. With Push To Talk, participants have to click and hold an icon button while speaking. With Voice Activated, the system detects who is speaking and automatically opens their audio channel. With Open Mic everybody is heard all the time, which may strain bandwidth capacity and reduce audio quality.

In more structured meetings, especially where using Push To Talk, participants can be required to click a "Raise hand" button and wait to be acknowledged by the organizer.

The application-document sharing function works well (although limited to Microsoft Office apps). Image resolution is good. There is some latency, naturally—it can take a couple of seconds for a shared screen to change on a participant's computer. It's also possible to share only one application so that the rest of the sharer's screen is not visible to other participants.

This feature does have limitations. It's possible for other participants besides the organizer to share their screens, but it's not possible to give control of the sharer's mouse or keyboard to another participant, as it is with Citrix's GoToMeeting, for example.

Which One?
SightSpeed is generally easier to use than HearMe, and audio/video quality may be marginally better—at least on two-way calls. But HearMe offers more meeting management features, including screen/application sharing, which is definitely more useful than SightSpeed's e-mail-based in-call file sharing.

While both offer pricing plans with unlimited meeting time, HearMe pricing appears lower. And its pricing model provides more flexibility since organizers can invite participants that are not already registered users.

Adapted from Wi-FiPlanet.com.

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This article was originally published on February 14, 2008
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