How to Evaluate Video Conferencing Vendors’ Claims

by Michael Helmbrecht, Vice President of Product Marketing, LifeSize

Lately we’ve been hearing a bunch of claims by some competitors about the video quality and reduced bandwidth consumption benefits of their approaches to the H.264 video conferencing standard. We’ve reviewed these claims and have to say: There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark (or perhaps California…). Buyer beware if in order to achieve these performance claims you are asked to do the following during video calls:

  • Stand perfectly still on one leg…
  • Only move your lips every 15 seconds or so…
  • Wear only the color mint green…
  • Never share any documents on screen…
  • And a pineapple must appear somewhere in the frame

But seriously, to take advantage of these offerings customers must make substantial upgrades in both hardware and lighting, and even then there are limitations. So how can you evaluate video conferencing vendor offerings in light of these claims? We’ll give you some questions to ask, but first a quick background about H.264:

H.264 Baseline Profile has been used broadly throughout the video conferencing industry and is supported by all of the major manufacturers; it’s been referred to simply as H.264. The standard defines how to decode video and suggests a set of tools to encode video. Note that the H.264 standard does not define how to actually encode video; it only provides a set of tools. This is the reason that video quality and bandwidth efficiency vary from vendor to vendor, even though all are using the H.264 standard. This is analogous to two different construction workers who are given identical tools – hammer, nails, saw, wood – but end up building two very different homes. Just as the final product of a house will vary based on the design and the construction crew, the final quality of H.264 video and the bandwidth required will vary based on the encoder architecture and how the H.264 tools are used.

While it is widely known that some versions of H.264 can reduce bandwidth consumption, it does so at a cost—a loss of interoperability with the existing installed base of equipment and a need to upgrade hardware. So how can you evaluate whether a particular flavor of H.264 is right for you? Here are several questions to ask:

  • Has this vendor’s version of the H.264 standard been implemented by any other vendor in the industry?
  • Does it interoperate with equipment from other vendors?
  • Does it interoperate with any of this vendor’s own products prior to this new release?
  • To use this new version of the standard, do you have to purchase all new endpoints and infrastructure bridges?
  • Are the bandwidth benefits of this new standard lost when this vendor’s other products or third party devices are introduced into a call?
  • Can you share data on the presentation channel without increasing bandwidth use?
  • Can you go have significant movement in the call without a decline in frame rate and an increase in motion artifacts? In practical use, systems often need to sustain fluid motion handling well beyond the 30 percent motion some vendors cite as “significant.”
  • Does the vendor require you to upgrade lighting in conference rooms to “studio” levels greater than 550 lux? Many rooms around the world are not lit to 300 lux, let alone 550 lux or more.

This should give you a good starting point to evaluate what is right for your video conferencing environment. LifeSize does not believe in forcing customers to invest in a proprietary solution and alter their conference room environment with additional lighting in order to achieve our advertised claims. We believe the technology should be intelligent enough to work within existing environments and automatically adapt to a customer’s network, allowing interoperable, universal collaboration and genuine human interaction across distance. Our video conferencing systems are designed to be added into customer environments as they exist and perform exceptionally well without retrofitting the environment or the network.

In contrast to competitors’ versions of H.264 to reduce bandwidth consumption, LifeSize uses an advanced encoder architecture that is capable of more efficient compression of the H.264 Baseline codec. The result is a solution that retains interoperability while at the same time delivering significantly reduced bandwidth consumption, even when data sharing is turned on, when lighting is imperfect, and when users choose to move.

For example, LifeSize 220 series systems can sustain a 720p call at only 384kbps, using interoperable H.264 Baseline. One of our competitor’s requires 1024kbps to achieve an interoperable 720p call using H.264 Baseline, and 512kbps for a 720p call using their less standard version of H.264. With data sharing enabled, this competitor’s bandwidth requirements increase an additional 50 percent while LifeSize remains constant.*

Furthermore, the LifeSize approach uses the same H.264 Baseline Profile that is in broad use today, so it retains complete interoperability and delivers bandwidth savings on every video call regardless of what H.264-capable endpoint is on the other side.

Unfortunately, when it comes to some vendor’s claims about H.264, it’s caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware!

*To be clear, HD at 384kbps is not the LifeSize default setting. We don’t think it will provide the best experience in most cases. But it is easily achieved and clearly surpasses the performance claimed by our competitors.

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