Cisco TelePresence 500 delivers the total collaboration experience

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

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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.

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