Nefsis Delivers HD Videoconferencing to the Desktop

If you’re looking for a cloud-based provider of telepresence-style desktop videoconferencing — i.e. something that provides very high quality — add Nefsis to the list of possibles.

Nefsis has been around since 1998 as a purveyor of multipoint conferencing products and services, but like most conferencing companies, has migrated steadily from premise- to cloud-based products and services. Its latest cloud offering, Nefsis Professional, includes multipoint HD videoconferencing, coupled with either VoIP or (for an extra fee) PSTN-based audio conferencing, and web conferencing (whiteboarding and screen, application, slideshow and file sharing.) It’s all controlled from one slick interface.

Nefsis is a little coy about pricing, saying only that the service is “competitive with” Web conferencing services and “far less expensive than traditional boardroom video conferencing equipment.”

“Tell anybody who’s interested to give us a call,” says Nefsis vice president of marketing Tom Toperczer. Well, okay.

We recently tested Nefsis Professional, with mixed results. (You can sign up here for a free 14-day trial and try it for yourself.)

In an initial briefing with Toperczer from Nefsis’s headquarters in San Diego, on which we used a Nefsis PSTN audio conference bridge, call quality was generally excellent. Video looked razor sharp when set to “high quality” – quality can be adjusted on the fly in the interface. It’s doubtful it was ever truly HD quality, though. The resolution might have been 720p, but the frame rate was certainly less than 30 (or 24) frames per second (fps).

It was still as good as any desktop video we’ve seen, and significantly better than Skype, with which we’re most familiar. And the Nefsis conference managed to maintain video quality even when Toperczer added several co-workers as silent participants in video only.

Results were not so impressive when we hosted our own conferences using Nefsis Professional, however.

Bandwidth, of course, is a huge determinant of conference quality. So is the distance and number of router hops between participants and the Nefsis servers used.

Nefsis won’t say how many servers it has, or where exactly they are, but claims to have presence all across the U.S. and in 45 countries, including Canada and the UK where our participants were located. It also boasts that the technology automatically selects either the closest or least congested servers to ensure optimal performance – i.e. with the least amount of latency or delay in voice and video.

The first conference we tried had four participants, three of them, including the host, in the same facility in Canada, sharing a cable TV Internet service with 10 Mbps downstream and only 500-Kbps up. The fourth participant was in the UK. The three participants in one facility probably put a severe strain on the Internet service there, especially the uplink.

Video, which we set to a fairly modest 320×240 and 15 frames per second – so well short of HD-quality – was generally good, certainly superior to Skype video. But video windows were kept small, and when there was other sharing going on, motion grew choppy.

When we tried to share a video file in the sharing window, something that had worked reasonably well in the briefing with Nefsis, the audio was good, but video was reduced to about one frame per ten seconds – not really video at all.

During most of the conference, latency on the audio side made carrying on a normal conversation difficult but not impossible, and there was some clipping – loss of audio signal – especially when two people were talking at once, and severe echo at times. When three participants spoke at the same time, the audio was almost completely unintelligible.

In a second four-way conference with participants in four different locations in southern Canada, results were similar. Echo, delay and clipping were all problems on the audio portion, though not as severe as on the first conference. Video varied in quality but was generally acceptable.

This may sound damning, but isn’t necessarily all the fault of the Nefsis technology. Many factors come into play: the quality of each participant’s Internet service, distance from servers and traffic conditions on each leg of the network route at the time of the conference.

Nefsis, like other desktop videoconferencing service providers, has developed sophisticated technology for selecting best routes and adjusting audio and video streams to accommodate quality of the connection. And it makes adjustments on the fly, throughout the conference.

It’s essential, however, that you test any service of this kind at the locations where you plan to use it, on a few different occasions. It’s the only way to get a measure of the quality you can expect if you subscribe.

On the plus side for Nefsis, the interface is generally very good, and intuitive.

Hosts can download a memory-resident app that gives access to configuration settings and conference scheduling from a small control panel window, and lets them enter the virtual conference room, a full-screen browser-like interface. Or they can configure the service and enter the room all from within a browser.

Participants follow a link in an e-mailed invitation that takes them to a website where they click a button to download and install a temporary app that lets them join a scheduled conference or enter an always-on conference room.

The interface mimics the familiar Microsoft Office 2007 ribbon interface, right down to the large circular icon in the top left corner providing access to basic menu items. It includes tabbed ribbon menus across the top for Share, Video, Audio, (screen) Layout and Help.

The host and participant interfaces look very much the same, but the host controls things like video quality, the layout of the video windows in the interface — there are several options, including videoconference only — and who controls the sharing window, the main working area on the right-hand side of the screen.

When nothing is being shared, the sharing window is filled (on the host’s screen) with animated buttons for accessing often-used functions such as share options, contacts and emails and turning on participants’ video and audio.

This is one of the strong features of the Nefsis technology: A host can selectively turn on and off video and audio from a participant (or turn all on at the same time), or “expel” participants, as well as dictating the layout of the Nefsis screen that participants see.

A host or a participant designated by the host can share an application, a region of their screen, a browser window, a document (which can be marked up online), a multimedia file or a PowerPoint slideshow. There is a also a whiteboard function for brainstorming.

Media files and PowerPoint slideshows are transcoded on the fly to optimize quality and speed of display. PowerPoint slideshows were very responsive in our testing — participants saw slide changes as soon as the host made them and image quality was good. Video file sharing, as noted, was another matter.

One quibble about the interface is that when sharing some content — applications, for example — the shared content does not appear in the sharing window on the host’s screen (but does on participants’). This means hosts have to rearrange their desktop or flip back and forth between the Nefsis interface and the shared application.

We had a few other quibbles as well. Our attempts to automatically generate email invitations succeeded on one occasion but failed on another, for reasons we’re still not clear on. It’s easy enough to manually send out email invitations, though.

Another annoyance: when you first start sharing a document or PowerPoint or application, it appears in the sharing window, by default, at its full size, rather than scaled to fit the window, so it’s often partly obscured because outside the bounds of the window. There is a button at the top of the screen for ‘Fit in view.’ Why not make this the default view?

But these are quibbles. The Nefsis interface is excellent and the level and specificity of control it gives hosts is as powerful as any we’ve seen.

Is Nefsis worth a try-out? Absolutely. Based on our limited testing, it can be anywhere from very good to just barely passable.

But you must test these services in your own locations to get any sure idea of how well — or not — they will perform for you. Nefsis makes this easy with its 14-day free trial.

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