Tom Dyson

Technical Director

Better video calls

3 mins read

We have three offices, as well as remote team members in the UK, the US, Canada and the Philippines. Like many digital businesses, we have clients and partners across a wide range of time zones. This increasing internationalism is a source of pleasure and excitement - it's wonderful to live in a world where we can connect and collaborate with people across cultures and geographies, especially when we get to meet them in person. But we're also aware of the environmental and social cost of travel, and in particular we want to find ways to continue working internationally while reducing our flights. COVID-19, and the possibility that its continued spread may force self-isolation on a wide scale, has brought this into sharp focus.

The most obvious solution for reducing travel is video conferencing. This is hardly new - we hired Victoria sixteen years ago after interviewing her over a fuzzy 240 * 180 pixel Microsoft Chat window linking Oxford with Singapore - but despite the huge advances in connectivity, CPUs and the general availability of HD cameras in laptops and phones, video hasn't transformed work in the way we might have expected a decade ago. This quarter I have a goal (we call them rocks) to turn Torchbox's video conferencing from good to excellent. And since good calls require the involvement of all parties, my goal also includes helping the 80% of our clients who don't have good setups.

In three months I hope to follow up with a triumphant, detailed report. In the meantime, here are three top-level recommendations, based on my first few weeks of research and tests.

  1. Use Zoom. We've been using a mix of Google Meet (née Hangouts), Whereby (née, Slack and Zoom. Meet is really convenient because it's free, it works in most browsers and it integrates perfectly with Google Calendar. Zoom, on the other hand, requires everyone to install an app, is only free for 40 minute meetings (unless you have only have two participants), has its own confusing calendar and is dismaying ugly. However, the quality of Zoom calls is consistently higher than the browser-based alternatives, and this trumps everything else. Zoom for GSuite took me a while to find, but is the solution to our Google Calendar integration.
  2. Choose kit which works on different conferencing apps. Zoom is the best option for us now, but it may not be in a year or two. And we can't make everyone use it. Buy cameras and microphones and speakers which work with normal computers.
  3. Make starting and joining video calls as easy as possible. Our goal is that anyone can book any meeting room in their usual calendar, walk into it, press a button and be on the call. A good intermediate step is having a computer dedicated to video conferencing in each meeting room, so people don't have to fiddle around with USB and HDMI adapters for their laptops.

And because everyone wants to hear about kit, here are my March 2020 recommendations for three different budgets:

Use your laptop's built-in camera. These are pretty good on modern laptops, as long as they're still (i.e. not on your lap, or a wobbly table) and you're not sitting in front of a window. Use headphones with a built-in mic. The ones that came with your phone are probably fine. Learn the keyboard shortcut for muting yourself and use it when you're not talking.

Buy a Logitech c920. This venerable USB camera was Wirecutter's top pick until this year, but it's cheaper than its successor and a big step up from built-in cameras. Fix it to the top of the screen if it's just you at a desk, or to the bottom if it's on a wall-mounted screen in a meeting room. For audio, get a Jabra 510. This can connect with Bluetooth, but ignore that and keep it plugged in with USB. Place it as near as possible to whoever is speaking. If it will only ever be you on your side of the call, and you don't mind looking like a pilot, get a cheap wired headset with a mic that sticks out in front of your mouth.

Less low
Buy a Logitech Group. If you can fit more than six people in the room, buy the two extra mics. Plug it into a Mac mini - one from the last five years should be fine - and connect everything up to a big TV on the wall.

Are you one of our clients? We'll help you set this up, for free. If you're not, and you work at an organisation with a meeting room, the case for investing ~2000 GBP/USD/EUR on a Logitech Group + Mac mini + big TV should be easy to make. Even if you don't count the environmental, time and health costs of travelling, you'll break even after ten return train journeys from Bristol to London or two transatlantic flights. Have we got this all wrong? Tweet us with your better ideas.

Torchbox Bristol offices