Since I work mostly from home, video/voice conferencing and IM are of major importance to me, and using the right tools is vital to keeping me productive. The tools used for conferencing should have IM, presence indicator, voice and video calls, desktop sharing, file transfer and ad hoc conferences. There are a number of Microsoft products that offer those features, with Lync being the latest. Here is a list of those products and their names, as it has become quite confusing:
- Microsoft Lync Server (formerly named Microsoft Office Communications Server). Replaces Microsoft Office Live Meeting. Unlike Windows Live Messenger, this has an expanded feature set that is targeted toward corporate environments
Microsoft Lync is fairly new, and I have been using it for the past few months and really like it. It manages various forms of communication from one UI: instant messages, voice calls, video calls, meetings, and shared whiteboard sessions. Here are some of the cool features:
- You can see the name of person talking as their name will turn red (only if they entered their name when joining, otherwise you will see their telephone number turn red)
- Can use video
- Don’t have to make an extra call (i.e. having to use your cell phone in addition to joining the conference…instead use VoIP to talk over the Internet). Plus, since you are using the internet instead of your cell it saves on cell phone charges
- Can switch to the screen of any attendee..anyone can become the presenter
- Since you don’t need to use your phone, you get better reception most times
- Easily mute your call and see the time you have been on the call
- You can IM each other while on the call
- You can also connect with Windows Live Messenger for voice and video conversations
- One warning: Lync mutes your computer microphone by default when you start, so click the little microphone icon on top left to un-mute
- You can invite someone to a meeting on Lync by emailing them a link (which is generated within Lync) or by simply choosing their name if they are in your Lync contact list. You can invite someone by either choosing “Meet Now” within Lync, or by choosing “New Meeting Request” within Outlook and then choosing the “Online Meeting” button. If the invitee does not have Lync, they are giving an option to install Lync Attendee or use the Lync Web App. Note if they click on the meeting request link via Google Chrome, they won’t have the option of sharing their screen (the menu items simply don’t appear), so make sure they use IE when clicking on the link
- If your company does not have Lync, you can always purchase it for only $2/month per user (Lync Online Plan 1) or $5.50/month per user (Lync Online Plan 2, which includes additional options such as screen sharing). See comparsion
Of course with using video/voice conferencing, a good headset and microphone is a must. Here is my experience on what I tried:
- Microsoft LifeChat LX-3000 Headset and the similar Logitech USB Headset H530. These are over-the-ear headsets with noise-cancellation. The microphone sounded great and the noise-cancellations worked well, I just found my ears getting really hot after a few hours of use.
- Microsoft LifeCam Studio (1080P HD) - Works great for video. But your voice sounds like it’s on speaker phone because it basically is as the camera is usually a few feet from your voice.
- Voyager PRO UC V2 B230-M (Microsoft) P/N 38884-01 (Note that B230-M is a version optimized for Microsoft Lync and Microsoft OCS 2007). Benefits: Wireless, can walk 5-10 feet from computer; can use for both iPhone (or any other mobile phone) and computer; can listen to iPhone music (will pause when headset removed); auto answer when placing headset in ear; ears did not get hot like when using full headset. However, it bothered my ear quickly (I found the in-ear piece uncomfortable) and it sometimes lost the connection to my iPhone or computer.
- The solution I liked best was actually the cheapest of all: Using the Apple Earphones that came with my iPhone along with the Smartphone/iPhone Headset to PC Adapter that allows you to connect the 3.5mm Apple Earphone plug to your PC’s mic and audio 3.5mm plugs (or connect to your PC’s USB port by also using a USB to Stereo Audio Adapter Converter). Did you even know that Apple headphones had a mic? I use the same earphones for both video/voice conferencing and my iPhone, easily switching the earphone between the two. And it’s easy to take with you and works great when in your car using your iPhone to chat. I use the GPS on my iPhone so this allows me to talk and still watch the GPS since I don’t have to hold the phone to my ear. Other benefits: music sounds better to listen to; hands free, which besides allowing you to type, you avoid accidently pressing a button on your iPhone when it is to your ear; hear better with two earbuds in which they also block out noises. The only minor problem is not being able to hear yourself talk, which is easily solved by removing one earpiece, but I quickly got used to keeping but earpieces in.
I eventually upgraded my Apple Earphones for Scosche Increased Dynamic Range Noise-Isolation Earphones with tapLINE II Remote and Mic. I liked those a bit better since I prefer in-ear vs ear-bud. A good explanation of the different types of headphones is at Good to Know: Headphones.
You may want to make a few setting changes on your PC: Go to Sound -> Recording -> Properties -> Levels -> FrontMic (100) and Microphone Boost (+20). Also check the boxes for Noise Suppression and Acoustic Echo Cancellation.
For an idea on how Skype may play into all this, check out Microsoft Skype vs. Windows Live Messenger vs. Lync.
One final mention: I use Digsby for my IM.