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Product_Reviews.gif (5213 bytes)
January 2000


CU-SeeMe Pro

White Pine
Software, Inc.
542 Amherst Street
Nashua, NH 03063
Ph: 603-886-9050;
Fx: 603-886-9051
Web site: www.wpine.com

Price: $89.00 full kit; $49.00 upgrade from earlier version

ITEd.gif (2875 bytes)

RATINGS (0–5)
Installation: 4.5
Documentation: 5
Features: 4
GUI: 4.5
Overall: B+


CU-SeeMe Pro by White Pine Software is a video conferencing product that allows up to 12 users to participate simultaneously in a video conference. It gives users a more powerful tool than an “industry standard,” such as Microsoft’s NetMeeting, and has the added features of allowing participants to collaborate on an electronic whiteboard, to chat, to transfer files, and to collaborate on any Windows-based program. In addition, CU-SeeMe is compatible with other H.323-compliant products, including NetMeeting and ProShare by Intel.

INSTALLATION
There was very little work involved in installing CU-SeeMe Pro on our PCs. We had previously installed the conference software (MeetingPoint Conference Server), which was a much more complicated install. The software comes on a CD-ROM, and we first clicked on the “Read Me First” button. That brought up a text file of conflicts and possible incompatibilities that can arise with the installation. There is also a section with “known issues,” which include black frames around the video, installing a camera after CU-SeeMe Pro is installed, and making sure that appropriate browser software has been installed. We also made sure our camera was on the list of supported devices. (An updated list of compatible cameras is available at support.wpine.com.) The GUI for the install is simple, with only four options (install CU-SeeMe Pro, Install Utilities, Contact Info, Exit, and Read Me First). The Text for Tools tips appear in the window when the cursor passes over any of the buttons, and explain exactly what each button does. They are set up to allow the user to easily run the install, without any complications.

We chose to install the software and all the utilities. Our client PC was a 366 MHz Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM, on our 100 Base-T network. The install process was a standard wizard, with no surprises. We stayed with the defaults, which included the “typical” installation, and when the install was complete, we decided to see what the utilities were. The utilities were three different Microsoft products, NetMeeting, Internet Explorer, and Direct X Media. Since we already had NetMeeting and Internet Explorer on the PC, and Direct X was for Windows 95 only, we skipped this step.

Our next step was to go through the Setup Assistant in CU-SeeMe Pro. Again, this was a simple wizard that went through the standard process —configuring the video and audio levels, and making sure the camera worked with the software. There was also a squelch feature, which masked background noise. After completing the wizard, we were able to start using the software. The entire configuration process was done within the wizard, and no changes (other than customized views) needed to be made once the program was open.

DOCUMENTATION
The only hard-copy documentation with CU-SeeMe Pro is the Quick Start Guide. At sixty pages, it’s not intimidating to an end user, yet is thorough enough to get the job done. The copy is clear, and there are enough graphics (mostly screenshots) to clarify the steps in installing, configuring, and using the software. The program is simple enough to require a reasonably sized manual, and nothing is too in-depth.

The online help files in CU-SeeMe Pro are excellent. White Pine has historically had better than average online help files, and this is no exception. It is an HTML file, with a split screen. The topics are on the left 25 percent of the window, and the text is on the right 75 percent of the window. The text section has many graphics, and there are several links to related sections, all of which worked seamlessly. The programmers who worked on these help files proved how well this sort of thing can be handled. Any company with less-than-stellar HTML-based help files should take a look at this excellent example. A job well done!

FEATURES
CU-SeeMe Pro is feature rich. With a customizable interface and the ability to view up to 12 windows of video at any given time, it has a definite advantage over similar products, most notably Microsoft’s NetMeeting. Users are able to send and receive video, audio, and text, and meeting participants are able to share applications, transfer files, and share data with a whiteboard using integrated T.120 data collaboration. Other features include:

  • Up to 12 windows of videos at any given time;
  • Send and receive video, audio, and text;
  • Customizable interface;
  • Works over LANs, WANs, modems, and any TCP/IP network connection;
  • Fully H.323 compliant: Works with any other H.323 compatible client;
  • Ability to save chat; and
  • Address book, with the ability to locate other connected users of CU-SeeMe Pro or any other H.323 compatible client.

OPERATIONAL TESTING
We installed CU-SeeMe Pro on several networked computers in our lab. Along with CU-SeeMe Pro, we used another White Pine software product — MeetingPoint Conference Server — to facilitate our meeting. (See the November 1999 issue of Internet Telephony´┐Ż for an in-depth review of MeetingPoint.) We had previously set up a custom conference in MeetingPoint, so we decided to use that during our testing phase. We used a hodge-podge of cameras for our testing, including an Intel camera that originally came with a Create and Share camera pack. Our extensive experience in dealing with video conferencing and Voice-over-IP (VoIP) products showed us that the best way to go was a headset and microphone combo, rather than the stand-alone mic and external speakers, which result in echo.

Our first test was a relatively unsophisticated one. We wanted to do a peer-to-peer conference between two Windows 98 workstations, running on a 100 Base-T network, and not using the MeetingPoint Conference Server. When we did a direct dial from one PC to another, our sound quality was fair at best, and the video quality was much better than the sound. We tweaked the audio settings in the Advanced Settings window, with good results. The audio quality improved when we changed from G.723 6.4 Kbps to G.711 Mu-Law (high bandwidth, 64 Kbps). Previously, the latency was nearly two seconds, but after we made the setting change, it was about half a second, a much more comfortable conference. One slightly disturbing discovery, was that a ping test confirmed that the software was not optimized, thus it took a long time to process the packets and the latency was not due to the network. The results of our first test were mixed, but acceptable, after adjusting the settings in the preferences.

Our next test was a test of the software using the MeetingPoint Conference Server. We did extensive testing of the server previously, but those tests were used to evaluate the server software and not the client software. We set up a custom H.323 conference, and had three labs staff dial in to the server. This time the quality of the conference was better, most notably the video quality. Since CU-SeeMe Pro is optimized to work efficiently with MeetingPoint, it wasn’t surprising.

One odd thing happened when we were integrating NetMeeting with CU-SeeMe Pro. Even though the chat attribute was turned off in the conference, we were still able to chat with others by launching the chat feature in NetMeeting. However, the chat window that came up when using CU-SeeMe was from NetMeeting and not CU-SeeMe Pro. When we enabled CU-SeeMe’s chat feature, the window “imported” the chat text from our NetMeeting chat window and we were able to proceed with the chat, uninterrupted.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Video conferencing still has the unfortunate “novelty” tag attached, and has a long way to go before attaining mainstream status. This is in part due to the “gadget” tag that has been placed on early attempts at creating video conferencing products. The audio still has a bit of latency as we mentioned earlier, and this seems to be more of a software optimization issue White Pine has to address rather than the limitation of the network. However, many similar products suffer from the same problems.

The other “room for improvement” issues are minor. The chat GUI is not nearly as attractive or functional as the AOL or NetMeeting chats, although this isn’t a major functional part of the product. The other issue is the poor Web page that lists the compatible cameras. It appears to not have been updated in a while, and is below average design.

To be fair, CU-SeeMe Pro is basically a SOHO/home user gadget, and was developed for the home user market. In fact, there is an entire Web site that allows users to contact others on the Web using the software. For business purposes, CU-SeeMe Pro probably won’t be taken seriously unless it is connected to the MeetingPoint Conference Server, which makes it a powerful business tool.

CONCLUSION
CU-SeeMe Pro is an above-average product for video conferencing, particularly when used in tandem with another White Pine Software product, MeetingPoint Conference Server. With the possible exception of an identity crisis, White Pine has made all the right moves with the product. Even less-than-perfect audio can be forgiven, as all similar products suffer from the same dilemma. An easy-to-use GUI and administration make the product accessible, coupled with better than average quality video and audio. CU-SeeMe Pro is a deserving recipient of the Editors’ Choice Award.







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