Cisco WebEx review
The biggest name in online conferencing shows why it's the market leader
Cisco’s WebEx is the biggest name in internet conferencing, with a reputation built on stability, security, and a mature feature set. A wide range of plans are available, starting with a basic free service that provides simple video conferencing for up to 3 people. The £15 Premium 8 plan gives you HD video streaming, a single host licence and meeting sizes of up to eight people. The Premium 25 plan, priced at £30, which supports up to nine host licences for meetings of up for to 25 people per host. The Premium 100 plan, which costs £49, allows you to run meetings up to 100 people and again can have up to nine hosts associated with a single account.
The quoted costs are monthly, and per host licence. You’ll need multiple host licenses if you want to allow different users to hold meetings at the same time. Companies that need to run larger meetings, or need more simultaneous hosts, are encouraged to contact Cisco WebEx for a bespoke quote. We tested the Premium 8 plan, which is well suited to most small-to-medium businesses that need to conduct small virtual meetings.
All the paid-for plans provide the same tools and features, whatever their host and participant caps. By default, you get 1GB of online storage for shared files and recordings, 24/7 support, application sharing, and a dial-in number for participants to attend by phone. Optional bolt-ons allow you to add minutes to a Call Me plan, which WebEx uses to dial out to participants, rather than requiring them to connect online or dial in by phone.
Cisco WebEx: sign up & get started
We never expect much complexity from the configuration process of a web-based conferencing system, but WebEx is particularly simple - even by the standards of its competition. You create an account, add a name and a company name to your profile, along with optional address and contact information and, if you choose, a photo. All the information you enter will be shown to your WebEx contacts, along with your email address and a WebEx Jabber ID that can be used with compatible third-party instant messaging clients.
You’re pointed at a PDF user guide and tutorial videos as soon as you create an account, but the WebEx home screen is very easy to use even if you don’t have the patience to consult the documentation. It’s dominated by three big buttons - Meet Now, Schedule a Meeting and Join by Number.
While the Meet Now button lets you open a meeting room and invite people instantly, the Schedule a Meeting scheduler lets you set date, time and duration in advance, as well as add extra information such as information about the agenda and attached files you’d like participants to read. Meetings can be set to recur on a fixed schedule, require a password that can optionally be emailed out, be configured to use a third-party teleconferencing service, and be recorded by default. You can also add information about any alternate physical meeting location you might wish to use. Once scheduled, upcoming meetings are displayed on your WebEx Meetings page, where you can also view past meetings. The Join by Number button connects you to someone else’s WebEx meeting using the unique meeting ID they’ve given you.
The Files page gives you access to your WebEx online storage. Free users get 250MB, while premium subscribers get 1GB. Three default folders are used to store attachments for your meetings, recordings of your meetings, and files shared with you by others users. You can also create new folders and upload files. You can even create basic text documents. You get a few formatting options, including the ability to embed photos and videos. Documents are fully version tracked. You can share them with others via email, and they can in turn make comments, allowing for easy collaboration.
The Contacts page lets you add new contacts manually - this really just involves pasting in e-mail addresses one at a time. Anyone you’ve invited to a meeting via email is automatically added to your contacts book. If you need to add a large number of contacts, WebEx can import Outlook 2010, 2007, and Express contact files, and it even gives you detailed instructions on how to export them from Outlook in the first place. You can also import contacts from other sources, including Google Apps for Work, in CSV, VCard and TXT formats.
Alternatively, if your contact has a WebEx account, you can ask them to your WebEx contacts list (pending their authorisation, of course). From your contacts book, standard contacts can be invited to meetings now or in the future, while fellow WebEx users, whether on a free or paid account, can be reached via text chat, as well.
It’s remarkably easy to invite people to join a meeting once it’s started, either by sending an email invitation, inviting them from your WebEx contact list, or just generating a link which you can give to them via any means you find convenient. If you’ve added Call Me minutes to your WebEx account, you can phone or text attendees. Once participants arrive, hosts can mute and unmute them, as well as record everything for future use. Hosts can also view video and network quality statistics for the meeting.
Cisco WebEx: VoIP, audio and video quality
WebEx’s main meeting interface, available via either a permanent or a single-use web app, looks clean and neatly arranged. However, we’d have liked VoIP audio to be automatically enabled when we connected via video, especially as some of our test group reported that it’s not made clear enough that you have to click the on-screen Call Using Computer button in order to connect to WebEx’s VoIP chat. Alternatively, clicking on the Call In option on the same sub-menu shows a phone number and access code for your chat session.
Video and audio quality were good, but proved to be very sensitive to network connection and bandwidth issues, much more so than rivals Join.me Pro and Google Hangouts for Work. Overall quality was comparable to Skype for Business. Both video and audio are excellent when all participants have a reasonably high-speed internet connection, but if staff are going to be connecting using mobile broadband in the field or via slower ADSL connections, their ability to participate via video is likely to suffer.
Cisco WebEx: presentation and collaboration tools, mobile apps
WebEx’s presentation features are second to none, with screen-sharing, virtual whiteboards, multi-person video chat, and the ability to hand over the presenter role to one of your attendees. A Transfer option in the File menu allows you to share files with the group during the meeting, and we were very pleased with the ability to share video files, PDFs, images, and text files using WebEx’s integrated file viewer. We were disappointed by its lack of support for common word processor and spreadsheet formats such as DOCX and XLS, but the viewer is nonetheless very useful.
Shared files can be annotated by participants, making it easy to brainstorm and discuss changes. The built-in whiteboard is also easy to use, with a variety of drawing, text and highlighter tools, although we’d have preferred the options to add pages and clear the board to appear in the whiteboard toolbar, as well as in the main Edit menu.
WebEx’s mobile apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry have full audio and video support, setting it apart from Join.me, which lacks mobile video, and Skype for Business, which doesn’t have any mobile apps at all right now. You’ll want a strong Wi-Fi signal if you plan on using a mobile device for video, though, and if you’re outside a 4G area, you won’t get great results via mobile data, either.
Cisco WebEx: conclusions
WebEx provides a truly polished internet conferencing experience, with end-to-end encryption, password protection, and all the connectivity options you could want. However, it doesn’t cope well if some of your participants are on mobile or other slow internet connections. They can always dial in on a local-rate number, but that doesn’t work around the need for screen sharing or video in some meetings.
Google Hangouts for Work - or even its free counterpart - remains the best option if some of your participants have slow connections, while users who need to hold large meetings will prefer Join.me’s 250-participant sessions. However, for the vast majority of meetings, WebEx has enough features to justify its slightly pricey £15 monthly cost for an 8-person meeting, especially as that drops to £12 per month on an annual contract.
Outstanding tools for online meetings and communication, assuming everyone has a fast internet connection
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