For the money, CorelVideo is clever conferencing system

It arrived months behind schedule, it's still quirky and the
collaborative tools are slow. But CorelVideo desktop videoconferencing is so much fun that
you can overlook some of its shortcomings.


If your agency has teams of people spread out over several floors or buildings,
CorelVideo could be the most affordable way to collaborate with high-quality video. It's
when you jump to long-haul connections that signal quality degrades and costs jump
significantly.


A basic 16-user CorelVideo installation costs about $1,000 per person, plus $250 to
$500 apiece for PC video-in boards. The investment could pay for itself in a year or so if
it cuts back even a little on travel time for meetings.


In testing CorelVideo on the GCN Lab network, we found that its analog signal--that's
right, analog, not digital--made clear, smooth-flowing color images in any size window.


That's how it beats low-end systems like Internet CU-SeeMe, developed at Cornell
University and enhanced by White Pine Software Inc. of Nashua, N.H. You can cobble
together CU-SeeMe for a few hundred dollars, but the images are too jerky for real-time
conferencing. Plus, there's a lot of extra data traffic.


CorelVideo creates no extra Ethernet traffic. It's set up somewhat like a private
branch exchange. Video and audio travel over an unused set of twisted-pair wires in your
Ethernet cabling--as far as 500 feet between a Windows 95 or Windows NT server and a
desktop PC with Category 5 cable.


The cable passes through a Corel console box at each desktop. There, the analog video
signal is stripped out, while the data traffic continues on to the Ethernet card. The
signal is displayed on a separate television set or, with a video-in board, on the PC
screen in a window.


We tried it both ways. It's neat having the video right on your computer, but the
separate TV gives better images.


Your network design may not lend itself to this scheme. On the GCN test network,
digital data traffic goes through more than one hub. If the hubs were in the same wiring
closet, they would be easy to bypass. But our hubs are distributed, and we found it easier
just to string new wires for a temporary parallel network.


There's a $1,995 coder-decoder (codec) for digital transmission on a wide area network
or Integrated Services Digital Network line. ISDN is relatively fast, but the signal
suffers from jerkiness and low sound quality caused by packet switching.


CorelVideo's installation is complex enough that you'll probably need to hire a
Corel-approved contractor unless you have experience stripping wires and punching them
into a Bix block in the wiring closet. Two Corel engineers worked with us. They brought a
satchel of telephone network tools, and it took about a day and a half.


After using CorelVideo for a week, I found some bugs. The server crashed twice, and
Microsoft Windows 95 had to be reinstalled. After that, a video capture card, which shows
periodic freeze-frames inside user icons so you can tell who's at the desk, quit a few
times and had to be restarted at the server.


Basic videoconferencing is one-on-one. To talk to and see more than one person at a
time, you need a multipoint conferencing unit, which displays up to four live,
simultaneous images for about the same cost as a 10Base-T Ethernet hub.


CorelVideo's client interface really shines. Just double-click on a user's icon to call
that person. There are telephonelike features such as call hold, call waiting, conference
calls and caller ID. Tabbed directories keep track of other users by group or other
sorting methods--click on a tab to see the different groups.


Many of these ideas came from the Canadian government-funded, three-year Ontario
Telepresence Project, which studied the social impact of desktop video.


CorelVideo users can control whose calls they will take and whether their freeze-frame
images are visible to all. They can disable their desktop cameras without being overridden
by the system administrator.


Among the collaboration tools is TalkShow from Future Lab Inc. of Los Altos, Calif. The
shared whiteboard worked fine, but launching and using full applications was slow and
awkward. When we tried sharing a Web page with a 3-D rotating image, the video in the
window ground to a halt.


Because it handles traffic for as many as 96 users, the CorelVideo server should be a
dedicated machine. You could reassign your old 486s to shuttle the video.


Corel isn't the only company taking the analog approach. The C-Phone system from Target
Technologies Inc. of Wilmington, N.C., is similar, but its control panel has fewer
options, and CorelVideo has a slightly better price.


If you need local conferencing, buy CorelVideo. But if you're looking for long-distance
conferencing, the images may be only slightly better than what you'd get through CU-SeeMe.
And if on-line collaboration tools matter more to you than the video images, CorelVideo is
not your best solution.


Corel Corp., Ottawa; tel. 613-728-8200


Price: $16,000 to $20,000 for 16 users, from Government Micro Resources Inc.;
tel. 703-330-1194


Overall grade C+


[+] Great video quality


[+] Intuitive interface


[+] User-controllable access


[-] LAN cable modifications required


[-] Collaboration tools slow and unintegrated


[-] Still somewhat buggy


Real-life requirements:


High-end 486 or Pentium dedicated server, Win95 or NT Workstation PCs, video-in
overlay cards for on-screen images, extra Category 5 Ethernet cable



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