Buying a video conferencing system in 2024

Graphic of somebody engaging in a video conferencing call
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

As businesses learn to live with COVID-19, few are going back to the way things were. The benefits of remote working and video conferencing haven’t been lost on them, and many organisations are making permanent changes, with hybrid working proving a clear favourite.

Video conferencing systems have evolved over the last few years, with huddle rooms also becoming popular with smaller groups that don’t need full boardroom facilities to meet up with their remote colleagues and clients. Home-workers also want to look more professional and are no longer content to put up with cheap webcams, earbuds and unflattering lighting conditions.

All-in-one video conferencing bars offer the perfect solution for remote workers and SMBs as they avoid the clutter and expense of separate components. They come in a range of sizes to suit different environments and are simple to set up and use with even the most basic models offering a range of sophisticated video and audio features. These are the features you need to think about when buying a video conferencing system in 2023.

Bar code

Video conferencing bars may initially appear more costly than individually sold camera, microphone and speaker components but they’re far easier to use. Amalgamating everything you need into a single device simplifies the procurement process as you’re only dealing with one vendor, and they reduce the amount of cabling required making them simpler to install and a lot tidier as well.

Most products are designed to be installed in a static position and include kits for fixing them on the wall or attaching them to the meeting room monitor. The latter is, of course, one component you’ll need to source yourself, and with most bars offering cameras with 4K resolutions, we recommend teaming them up with a UHD monitor.

It may seem an unnecessary expense, as few video conferencing providers support the higher resolution, but UHD meetings are on the way, so it makes sense to future-proof your meeting room. At the moment, UHD is only supported by proprietary systems such as those from Lifesize, but the H.265 HEVC (high-efficiency video coding) and more recent H.266 VVC (versatile video coding) standards aim to reduce 4K bandwidth requirements by as much as half.

Wired for sound

Making sure everyone in the meeting room is in shot isn’t a problem, as modern video conferencing bars employ arrays of beamforming microphones. This smart technology comes under a range of names such as ‘speaker tracking’, ‘auto-framing’ and ‘RightSight’, but all use their array to work out where the person speaking is located and dynamically focus the camera on them.

These work very well with cameras zooming in on active speakers, following them as they move around the room, and zooming back out when they stopped talking. An advantage of models that use digital pan, tilt and zoom (PTZ) controls is they’re faster at tracking speakers, while those that use mechanical PTZ controls can take longer to physically move the camera and may produce a lag as they try to catch up.

Systems that provide optical zoom are more expensive but do come into their own with speaker tracking as video is much sharper when they tightly focus in on the active speaker. Digital zoom may track faster but we found picture quality can deteriorate noticeably on its maximum setting.

Another audio feature that’ll improve the meeting experience is a device’s ability to identify people’s voices and filter out unwanted noise such as paper rustling or keyboard bashing. Some do it better than others, with the voice identification technology in some capable of removing virtually all unwanted background noise.

We’ll meet again

Your choice of video conferencing bar will also come down to whether you want a standalone system, one that requires a host computer or one that can do both. Standalone systems run an embedded OS – often a scaled-down version of Android – that allows them to host a range of onboard apps.

Users don’t need to bring anything with them as they use the bar’s on-screen menus or optional touch-screen controller to access the app they want and start a meeting. Be aware that many vendors only allow certified apps to run on their standalone products, so check that the one you want is supported before buying.

A host-based bar connects to a PC or laptop, which accesses its camera, speakers and microphones. This is one of the simplest methods as users can bring their own device to the room, plug it into the video conferencing bar’s USB and HDMI ports and run their preferred app.

If the host device doesn’t have an HDMI port, that’s not a problem, as there are devices that support DisplayLink, which pipes video through the USB connection. All you do is install the DisplayLink drivers and for Windows devices, use the free Microsoft DisplayLink Manager app to choose the monitor attached to the bar to show your screen to the room.

Other features worth looking for are bar management services. Products that have an Ethernet port or integral wireless services can connect directly to the respective vendor’s cloud portal over the internet where their video and audio settings can be remotely configured with some also offering people counting and meeting room usage analytics.

As businesses adopt new working practices, it’s clear video conferencing has a pivotal role to play in the workplace of the future. Video conferencing bars on the market offer SMBs a wide choice of easily deployed solutions with features to match.

Dave Mitchell

Dave is an IT consultant and freelance journalist specialising in hands-on reviews of computer networking products covering all market sectors from small businesses to enterprises. Founder of Binary Testing Ltd – the UK’s premier independent network testing laboratory - Dave has over 45 years of experience in the IT industry.

Dave has produced many thousands of in-depth business networking product reviews from his lab which have been reproduced globally. Writing for ITPro and its sister title, PC Pro, he covers all areas of business IT infrastructure, including servers, storage, network security, data protection, cloud, infrastructure and services.