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July 1999

ViewStation SP

Polycom, Inc.
2584 Junction Ave.
San Jose, CA 95134-1902
Ph: 408-526-9000
Fx: 408-526-9100
Web site: www.polycom.com

Price: $3,999

Installation: 5
Documentation: 4.5
Features: 4.5
GUI: 4.25
Overall: A-

Polycom’s ViewStation SP is their latest product in the video conferencing arena supporting voice and video over an ISDN network, as well as over IP (with their latest H.323 software, which we had a beta copy of). Essentially, the ViewStation SP is a self-contained system, including a mobile camera, one of Polycom’s advanced echo-cancellation microphones, and a built-in Web server for management via a browser — hence dispensing with the need for a PC. Since it is self-contained with no hard disk (flash memory is used), the hassles of hard disk failures, operating system crashes, and the like are nonexistent. ViewStation may also function as a standalone speakerphone, or as a standalone presentation system for viewing PowerPoint slides.

When we opened the box and took out the ViewStation system, we noticed two packages, each with a large bundle of cords. One package was labeled “required,” while the other was “optional.” The optional cable setup was for attaching a second monitor, as well as a VCR.

In any case, we connected the required cables, which were color-coded so as to correspond with the color-coded inputs on the camera assembly’s back panel. Once we had attached the cables to the ViewStation, we looked at where they needed to go. We hooked up the monitor and placed the ViewStation SP on top of the TV monitor. Next, we connected the microphone pod to the back of the ViewStation, and attached an RJ-45 network wire from a network hub to the Polycom device. Finally, we plugged in the ISDN cord from the back of the ViewStation to a port on our Teltone Simulator.

With all the cabling out of the way, we started configuring ViewStation. Fortunately, like past ViewStations we have examined, the ViewStation SP has an auto-ISDN feature that automatically sets the SPIDs and switch type for quick installation. In addition, ViewStation can act as a DHCP client or as a DHCP server for automatic IP address allocation. We chose the DHCP client, since our LAN already has a DHCP server, and the SP was automatically assigned an IP address of

We turned on the ViewStation for the first time, and it took us through a mini-tutorial — since it knew it was our first time. For example, it asked us to supply the name for the station, as well as the BRI and SPID numbers for the ISDN lines going into the machine. Also, we were offered the option of inputting the phone numbers for any analog phones we might have plugged into the ViewStation. After entering all the necessary information, we were brought to the main screen for dialing and receiving video conferencing calls. Except for the first-time setup tutorial, this main screen will always be the first screen you view when you first turn on the system.

This product came with two pieces of documentation, which included a Quick Start Guide and the User’s Guide. The Quick Start Guide essentially aided us in connecting the cords to the Polycom SP. The User’s Guide was very good, but at first glance, we were a bit intimidated by how thick it was. We thought to ourselves, “How complicated could a video conferencing product be that the manual is practically two inches thick?”

Our fears were quickly allayed when we realized that the manual contained multiple languages, which was why it was so thick. The English version was actually only 100 pages thick, and very well organized. This guide not only dealt with the system setup, but it also touched upon call setup, audio and video controls, slides and graphics, and included tips for troubleshooting, as well as screenshots galore for aiding novice users. A portion of the guide was also devoted to the setup and diagnostic screens and the maintenance and troubleshooting of the system.

There were some shortcomings, however. For instance, the documentation to get NetMeeting to work with the ViewStation SP seemed so simple, but we weren’t able to get the two to work together before deadline. Also, although the index was fairly complete, there were some key words missing, such as “NetMeeting.” Overall though, we were quite pleased with the printed documentation.

In a similar product from Polycom that we tested — the PolyCom 128 — we weren’t impressed by the onscreen help. Likewise, in the ViewStation SP, which has essentially the same graphical user interface as the 128, we found the online help not nearly detailed enough to provide the sort of aid a user in a conference call would actually require. For example, pressing the Info button on the remote control brought up a help screen that displayed only the most basic information. It did little more than describe how to navigate around the screen by pressing the direction buttons and using the enter button to select an item.


  • H.320- and H.323-ready;
  • Video: H.261, H.263, Annex F,L,T;
  • Video Resolution: FCIF 352 x 288 pixels, QCIF 176 x 144 pixels;
  • Frame Rate: 15 fps at 128 Kbps;
  • Audio: G.728, G.722, G.711 codecs;
  • Full-duplex digital audio with echo cancellation and automatic noise suppression;
  • Surround digital microphone pod;
  • Ethernet and TCP/IP support;
  • T.120 interface with ShowStation IP and WebStation;
  • Streaming JPEG snapshots of PowerPoint slides to a Web browser;
  • Near and far site video monitoring;
  • Auto-SPID detection; and
  • Voice-tracking camera.

Access to the ViewStation SP is performed via a Web browser, which enables remote system management and diagnostics, software upgrades, and presentations over a network. Web management capabilities include call monitoring, network statistics, call launching, system diagnostics, and address book management. These functions can be performed remotely through a password-protected entrance from either Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. As previously mentioned in the Installation section, we were able to configure all of the necessary settings to get the SP up and running via a browser interface.

For one of our first tests, we wanted to test how the PolyCom SP worked in conjunction with Microsoft PowerPoint. Essentially, Microsoft Powerpoint slides can be sent to the ViewStation SP via the Web from a locally-attached PC, or one or more remote PCs, for display during a video conference. We tested this capability and found it to be quite powerful, but not without some glitches.

Basically, the PowerPoint slides are downloaded to the Polycom SP’s flash memory. This is done from a PC somewhere on the same network as the SP. By clicking on the Web button “Select a Presentation” from the PC’s browser, an application is installed on the PC (ActiveX), at which point you can browse your hard drive’s folders for the PowerPoint file you wish to view. The application then converts the PowerPoint slides to JPEG format (compressed graphics format), and sends the JPEGs to the Viewstation SP’s specified IP address. One of the glitches we encountered was that our 21-slide presentation was in the process of downloading to the Viewstation SP when the downloading application crashed. We tried the same PowerPoint presentation again after rebooting the PC, but to no avail.

Next, we decided to choose a different PowerPoint presentation, and this time it downloaded fine. After the download was complete, we could press the “Slides” button on the Polycom remote control and view the PowerPoint presentation on the television hooked up to the Polycom SP. Navigating through the slides was very easy. Simply pressing the left or right arrows on the infrared remote control changed the slide being viewed on screen. We could also view all of the slides by changing to a thumbnail view, which was quite convenient. We should also point out that any number of participants can view the slide presentation simply by pointing their Web browser to the IP address of the Viewstation SP and then clicking on the “View Slide Presentation” button.

Another glitch we encountered after a PowerPoint presentation failed to download completely was that the PolyCom SP Web server stopped responding to HTTP requests. We needed to turn the SP off and then on in order for the device to start responding again. Fortunately, unlike a PC, the SP comes back online very quickly, which certainly is an advantage to competing products which run on a PC.

We should point out that it is possible that these glitches are due to the beta software we installed on the ViewStation SP. Essentially, we downloaded and installed a newer version of the software, which contained H.323 support to allow NetMeeting to be able to call the ViewStation SP, as well as gatekeeper support. Unfortunately, we were unable to get this feature to work. We contacted the beta technical support group, but they were unable to get back to us in a timely manner to resolve the issue.

Video Quality
Since TMC Labs recently moved to a larger facility, we haven’t gotten our ISDN lines installed yet. At first, we were hesitant to install ISDN lines since ISDN service in Connecticut is quite expensive. Instead, we often use Teltone ISDN simulators, which can do the job just as well. However, using an ISDN simulator often requires that vendors send two of their products in order to test them over the simulated line. On the other hand, if we use “live” ISDN lines, vendors need only send one product, since we can make video phone calls over the ISDN line to the vendor’s test labs.

Even with the emergence of other technologies, such as DSL and cable modems, ISDN seems to be sticking around, so TMC Labs has ordered ISDN lines for future testing purposes. However, since they are not installed as of yet, we tested the quality of ViewStation’s video that would be sent over ISDN by using the near-end loopback function in the diagnostics section of the ViewStation. In comparison with the direct, uncompressed video straight from the camera, the video we saw through the loopback function was a bit aliased (blocky) due to the compression algorithms, but this was to be expected with a 128 Kbps bandwidth pipe. Also, we should point out that the frame rate was very good.

Audio Quality
We were very pleased with the performance of the microphone and the audio capabilities of the system. Polycom is well known for producing audio devices specially designed for the conference room. Certainly, the microphone supplied with the ViewStation was top-notch, supporting echo cancellation and noise suppression.

Voice-Tracking Capabilities
In our voice-tracking tests, we had two people in the conference room. When one person stopped speaking and the other person started speaking, the camera moved to target in on the new sound source. However, the system’s voice tracking didn’t do so well when it had to follow more subtle movements, such as those of a speaker walking around the room. The camera did not slowly pan over as the speaker moved. Instead, it hesitated until the speaker was completely out of view, at which point it would quickly move to bring the speaker to center view. We would like to suggest that Polycom add face-tracking capabilities to this product line, which, due to our past experiences with video conferencing products, we find to be more accurate than voice-tracking systems.

The remote control currently requires a direct line of sight with the ViewStation SP. Although you can be several degrees to the left or right of the ViewStation SP, you still need to lift your arm and point the remote control in the general direction of the SP. We’d like to see a remote control that uses “scattered” infrared technology, or perhaps one that uses radio frequencies instead. As previously mentioned, face-tracking capabilities would be a nice addition to the feature-set. Finally, we would like to see more stable support for PowerPoint presentations, particularly ones with complex graphics, which may require more flash memory in the SP or a better PowerPoint-to-JPEG converter.

This product is perfect for the conference room due to its simplicity and ease of use. Non-technical users will learn how to use this system very quickly. Administrators will love the Web-based interface for managing the system. Overall, TMC Labs was very pleased both with the performance and the feature-set of the Polycom SP.

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