If you’re sold on using Skype for business, Trendnet‘s ClearSky Bluetooth VoIP Conference Phone Kit ($130 to $145) could be a useful addition to your telecom arsenal. It’s designed like—and works like—a conventional boardroom conferencing unit, with a control pad, small LCD display, speaker, and three hands-free microphones.
You place the three-pronged ClearSky unit on a table with meeting participants grouped around it. Instead of connecting it to your office phone system or a conference bridge to link in remote participants, it connects via Bluetooth to a computer running Skype software. You can add up to four remote participants using Skype—using either PC-to-PC or SkypeOut connections.
The product works as advertised. Set-up was reasonably easy. Skype-connected participants sounded loud and clear enough over the unit’s speaker, but remote participants in test conferences complained of poor voice quality for on-site participants speaking into the unit’s hands-free microphones. Some deemed the quality unacceptable. Others said it was no worse than experienced in some conventional teleconferences with remote participants connected by cell phone.
The kit consists of the speaker phone unit, a USB Bluetooth dongle that plugs into the host computer running the Skype client software, a USB cable used to charge the battery in the ClearSky unit from the PC, Trendnet application software and BlueSoleil Bluetooth application and driver software from IVT Corp.
My out-of-the-box experience was not perfect. True, the Quick Installation Guide provides step-by-step instructions, but on the first attempt, the PC software did not behave as predicted in the guide. Instead of proceeding to a screen with an option to search for Bluetooth devices, it opened other screens instead.
Neither the Quick Installation Guide nor the user manual (a PDF file on the CD) explained how to work around this situation. I ended up having to uninstall the ClearSky and BlueSoleil software, download new software from the Trendnet site and reinstall. It worked the second time.
Once installed with the correct Bluetooth configuration (set as part of the install procedure), the ClearSky unit automatically connects to the host computer over a Bluetooth link as soon as it powers up. Trendnet says it will connect at up to 328 feet from the host, “depending on environment.” That would likely only be attainable in a completely open space. On the other hand, it worked with no apparent degradation in connection quality at distances up to 30 feet through one internal wall.
It’s hard to imagine a use case in which you’d need much greater range than that. The fact that the ClearSky unit is battery operated and Bluetooth connected makes it completely portable, unlike conventional systems that typically reside in one room. This is one of the distinct benefits of this product—no messy wires, take it anywhere. But the simplest way to set it up would be with a laptop as the host system, which could then be carried along with the ClearSky unit to whichever room you’re using for the teleconference. If you do it that way, range simply would not be an issue.
The small monochrome LCD screen (about 1.15 x 1.15 inches) displays icons showing operation mode (which mode the phone is currently in), Skype status (connected or not), Bluetooth signal strength (bar graph), and volume and battery levels. There are also LEDs below the screen for Power, Bluetooth connectivity for the microphones, and Online Status.
Setting up a teleconference is simple enough. You start by pressing the dedicated Sync button to synchronize with the host PC. This displays your Skype contacts on the ClearSky LCD, complete with presence information. Scroll down the contact list using the Up and Down arrow keys to highlight the name of a participant. Press the Select/Function button and an asterisk appears by the person’s name.
When you’ve added all the participants you want—up to four (excluding the host)—and you’re ready for the conference to start, press the green Call button. The ClearSky unit initiates connections with each of the participants more or less simultaneously.
You can also make peer-to-peer or SkypeOut calls to individual contacts and then add a second participant to create a conference. Select another contact and press the Green call button, then select “CON CALL” from the pop-up menu (on the ClearSky LCD)—or select “P2P CALL” if you want to put the first caller on hold and talk to the second.
In test conferences, the voices of remotely connected Skype participants were almost always clear and intelligible over the ClearSky unit’s speaker—in a few cases more natural sounding than with PSTN calls. The quality of the connections in the same conference varied, however, with some better than others. This is the usual experience with Skype—connections between the same two users made minutes apart can be markedly different. It’s a function of the peer-to-peer routing over the Internet, congestion levels on that route, equipment used by participants, and other factors.
The main problem encountered with the ClearSky Kit was the lack of voice clarity of onsite participants speaking into the unit’s microphones, as experienced by remote participants. At worst, onsite participants were sometimes unintelligible, with attenuation and break-up or severe clipping. Others claimed voices merely sounded hollow, scratchy, and low volume.
As always with Skype, it’s difficult to isolate the cause or causes of these problems. It could in some cases be no more than the usual echo and attenuation typical of speakerphones. Poorly designed or engineered speakerphone microphones are another likely contributor.
In one attempt to isolate the role played by the microphones, I plugged a USB headset into the host Skype computer and changed the Skype audio device settings so that output still came through the ClearSky speaker, but my input went through the headset mike. Remote participants reported that this solved most if not all of the connection problems reported earlier.
It’s unfortunate that Trendnet did not include analog microphone or USB ports on the ClearSky unit to allow onsite participants to bypass the apparently troublesome hands-free microphones and use headset microphones.
Then again, it could simply be problems typical of Skype connections being exacerbated by using a speakerphone. The participant reporting the worst experience suspects that his corporate firewall sometimes causes problems with the quality of incoming connections. His voice, while it did not sound as clear as some other participants, was perfectly intelligible coming through the ClearSky speaker.
In another test, an assistant called me Skype-to-Skype from the ClearSky unit. It was a very good connection. Her voice, coming through the ClearSky microphone, made it sound as if she were sitting inside a tin can, but it was perfectly intelligible and a good volume.
One potential problem with IP-based conference calls is clipping and other problems when participants speak simultaneously—as they will do during conferences. In our tests, when remote participants spoke over each other, they did become somewhat less intelligible. This is partly a problem with hearing. It’s sometimes difficult to separate two voices coming, confusingly, from the same source (the ClearSky speaker). But there was also some clipping and break-up.
Somewhat surprisingly, remote participants reported that when two people were speaking simultaneously through the ClearSky microphones, there was little or no further degradation in voice or connection quality.
Bottom line: The fundamental benefit of this device is being able to include multiple onsite participants in a Skype conference call without having to establish separate Skype connections for each. If that capability is compromised by poor voice quality from the speakerphone microphones, it certainly makes the product less valuable.
Our recommendation: Look for a retailer who will let you try it and return it no questions asked if it doesn’t meet your quality requirements. Then again, if the application is connecting workgroup members on different continents and the cost of using conventional teleconferencing services is prohibitive, you may be willing to suffer the compromised quality. Even a substandard-quality teleconference may in some cases be better than none at all.