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Hands-on with Google’s new “Chromebox for meetings”

Spice IT

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People love Google+ Hangouts for meetings. People also love big LCD screens in conference rooms for meetings. What if they both moved to California and got married?

We’re in luck – today Google announced “Chromebox for meetings” – their first foray into the world of room-based video conferencing, with CDW as a launch partner.

As you might expect with any v1.0 product, Google’s first stab at this sector comes with a few rough edges. However, the basic functionality people know and love from Google+ Hangouts is ready for action in a conference room down the hall from you.

What’s in the box?

Google developed a remarkably simple product leveraging two of their key strengths – cloud based services and Chrome OS software. A “Chromebox for meetings” is pretty much what the name implies – a Chromebox with some additional kit for video meetings. The release hardware may vary, but it is likely to contain:

  • A Google Chromebox, with wired and wifi connectivity
  • A USB HD web cam
  • A USB microphone/speakerphone
  • A custom Bluetooth/RF remote control with a d-pad and full qwerty keyboard on the rear.

Plans call for the kit bundle to come in at $999 – including a 1-year device management subscription to “Chrome for meetings” priced at $250. The device ties directly back to your Google Apps domain, providing management and linking to a room calendar in your organization (thus you must be a Google Apps customer to achieve full functionality).

How does it work?

It’s pretty simple really – Google’s written some additional software to provide an easy-to-use 10-foot interface based on the custom remote control. The Chromebox for meetings loads Google+ Hangouts in a special “kiosk” mode, showing users a list of upcoming meetings and letting them launch ad-hoc Hangouts. No other Chrome OS apps or functions are exposed (today).

The device registers to your Google Apps domain via the aforementioned paid subscription – a new option will show in your Google Apps domain Device Management panel to allow you to tie it to a conference room calendar.

When you schedule a conference using the room calendar and “add video” to the meeting invite, the invite creates a named Google+ Hangout. The Chromebox will then show this calendar entry on its display list to allow easy launching, and desktop or mobile users can launch their Hangouts app and join from their calendar or via a URL.

Alternately, a user can “build” a meeting ad-hoc on the device by launching a new named Hangout and either inviting users from the Chromebox UI by typing their addresses in with the remote, or by passing them the Hangout name via another method.

Ultimately the Chromebox for meetings simply runs Google+ Hangouts in a packaged app “kiosk mode,” so room-based systems get the same UI, same features and same experience as desktop creating a nice, unified theme. The client behaves the same way as a desktop client, runs on the same backend, and has the same high level of quality.

Hands-on Testing

Google was kind enough to loan CDW several pre-release units for testing and feedback. Our pre-release units, based on a older Chromebox and pre-release versions of the kiosk-mode Google+ Hangouts app, are likely somewhat different than the release hardware/software based on a new Asus Chromebox.

In the small-ish white box we received the aforementioned Chromebox, the HD web cam, the USB speakerphone, the remote and some cables and manuals.

The Google Chromebox for meetings pre-release “kit”

The Google Chromebox for meetings pre-release “kit”

Setup was a snap.  Hang-and-bang both a display and the Chromebox for meetings, then run out the cables for power, the USB speakerphone, and HDMI, then mount the HD web cam to your display.  Don’t forget to pull out the plastic tab that keeps the batteries of the remote fresh.  Also don’t forget to invest in a carpet cover / cable trough for the USB extender cable going out to the table.

Installed and ready-to-go on a beautiful 70” screen

Installed and ready-to-go on a beautiful 70” screen

On first boot the Chromebox presented a simple UI for language, timezone and network selection (wireless or wired), followed by a sign in for the Google Apps domain for device registration. An administrator must sign the device in, then the device appears in the Google Apps admin portal.

In the Google Apps admin portal you can name the Chromebox and attach it to a room calendar for meetings.

With that, you are off to the races!

The home screen: Google+ Hangouts in kiosk-mode

The home screen: Google+ Hangouts in kiosk-mode

From the home screen you may select an upcoming meeting or launch a named hangout (from which you may invite participants ad-hoc).  Google provides the pleasant rotating background photos, however in this 1.0 release you cannot supply your own.

the 10-foot interface, a remote with full qwerty keyboard

The 10-foot interface, a remote with full qwerty keyboard

Google’s remote provides all the key features on one side – mute, hang-up and a d-pad for navigation – with a full qwerty keyboard on the reverse. Despite the small Chiclet keys, the keyboard proved quite usable.

In-meeting, it’s the Google+ Hangouts that you know and love. You can present your screen to the Hangout by navigating to https://g.co/present/ and logging into Google Apps (if you aren’t already). From there you may select the Hangout and how you wish to present.

There’s just not much more to say – it’s Google+ Hangouts on your big screen in your conference room with a 10-foot interface ☺.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Chromebox for meetings, like any v1.0 product, offers the promise of great technology, with a few rough edges.

The Good

What’s not to like? It’s Google+ Hangouts in a new, very room-friendly format. The device hardware clearly lends itself to smaller conference rooms, so-called “huddle rooms” (soon to be termed “Hangouts rooms,” no doubt). The HD web cam and USB speakerphone work surprisingly well in a room seating 2-8 up to 12’x14’. All the standard video conferencing tips apply – better lighting (indirect FTW), better wall paint (peach or cork gives participants the most “alive” palor) and fake plants in the corners (cutting echo) enhance the experience greatly.

The remote with keyboard provides a pretty good 10-foot interface, and the tie back to Google Apps calendaring makes it easy to schedule and launch meetings. If you’re a Google Apps organization (and you must be to get full functionality) this is a very, very low cost, very functional video conferencing platform that ties right into tools your users already use daily. You can enable conference rooms at $999 a pop.

And that’s the biggest good – the economical price combined with the fact that Google provides all the video conferencing infrastructure for a comparatively low yearly device registration fee in the cloud. The most expensive component of most video conferencing systems tends to be the infrastructure – the call control, firewall traversal, bridging and management systems add up to big bucks on top of the endpoints themselves – and don’t forget the maintenance!

The Bad

There’s not much bad, especially if you keep in mind this is simply Google+ Hangouts with a 10-foot interface, meant for small conference rooms. Google cut no corners – it is the same client, fully functional, that your user base uses today.

Depending on your organization and your network, however, there are a few things you might want to keep in mind:

  • It’s Google+ Hangouts, so no interoperability with traditional video conferencing systems. Vidyo will release a “connector” or “gateway” product to allow traditional systems to interface with Google+ Hangouts (including Chromebox for meetings).
  • It’s meant for smaller 2-8 person rooms. The web cam + speakerphone provide excellent quality, but suffer in larger spaces. This is not a product for your boardroom.
  • The flipside of “the good: it’s cloud-based.” This means no Quality of Service (QoS), though the client adjusts well to bandwidth limitations and packet loss. This also means every call sends data out over the Internet to Google, which then flows back over the Internet into your Enterprise to other participants, even Bob down the hall. So, how fat is your WAN to backhaul all this Internet-bound traffic to your DC and back? How fat is your Internet pipe to sustain dozens of callers? Google recommends 1Mbps upload, 2Mbps-3Mbps download for each participant at maximum quality. However, if the Internet *is* your WAN you’re all set ☺.
  • There is very little enterprise-grade reporting capability built into the product (today). Then again, at $999/room providing usage-based business justification for what would be significant capital expense with other vendors just went out the window ☺.

The Ugly

There’s not much ugly, especially if you keep in mind this is simply Google+ Hangouts with a 10-foot interface. For a version 1.0 effort, it’s actually quite good!

I have just two major items, hopefully both quickly fixable in software:

  • There’s no Consumer Electronics Control support. This means your Chromebox can’t put your display to sleep, nor can it wake it. Newer TVs generally go standby on their own, but older TVs may stay on with the backlight wasting energy and bulb life. And if the TV goes standby and then off after a period, you’ll need to manually turn the TV on again when you want to make a call, meaning you need to keep the TV remote around as well. This could reasonably get fixed in a future software update.
  • There’s no good method to use the connected TV for out-of-meeting presentation without changing inputs. Since the Chromebox cannot directly take video input (unlike competing solutions), you need a second set of cables coming off the TV on another input, and you need to use the TV remote to switch inputs. This is gonna be a little painful – I can imagine the help desk calls – “I press buttons on the Chromebox remote but see nothing!” All that said, this could also be fixed in software – bring in the Chromecast code in a future software update!

But what does it mean?

If you are a Google Apps customer, this product is a no-brainer. The Chromebox for meetings delivers on its key feature – putting a Google+ Hangout on the 55” TV in your conference room, with a great 10-foot interface. With its high quality and a great price point, there’s nothing to lose – enable every room in your organization!

If nothing else, Chromebox for meetings puts a lot of pressure on other video conferencing solution providers, both in terms of functionality and price point. Enterprise solution providers can no longer ignore Google+ Hangouts as a “consumer” technology.

Backed by their famously quick product development cycle, you can rest assured Google will soon establish themselves as a major market player. Undoubtedly they will not just sand the rough edges, but do some truly innovative things integrating the rest of Google Apps (e.g. Google Docs) to Google+ Hangouts and Chromebox for meetings.

This selfie captures CDW’s opinion of the Chromebox for meetings

This selfie captures CDW’s opinion of the Chromebox for meetings

Pre-Order Chromebox for Meetings from CDW today

Comments

13 Comments

  1. Bob Birkholz

    That looks all the world like a Logitech C920 USB camera and a Jabra speakerphone, and the Google TV remote – can you confirm?

  2. Nick MuellerNick Mueller

    To quote Francis Urquhart: “You might very well think that, but I could not possibly comment.”

  3. Dee

    While Nick (or Francis) can’t confirm – it looks like you’re spot on, Bob. You could piece together this solution yourself for about 1/4 the cost.

  4. Dan

    Have you tested this with any higher qulity webcams like Vaddio for increased usability? I would think a PTZ USB camera would be a nice addition. Overall, looks like a nice addition to the video world at a price that’s extremely competitive.

  5. Nick MuellerNick Mueller

    Hello Dan,

    I have not tested it with Vaddio or other cameras. Above and beyond the fact that Google Tech Support would likely not assist you if there were issues, the key question is whether Chrome OS contains drivers for an alternative camera.

    I am not sure if Chrome OS uses UVC or not. Regardless, Hangouts itself does not have any FECC-type protocol to carry PTZ, so you’d be losing some functionality there, though I suppose somebody in the room itself could perform PTZ functions.

    This gets back to a key point, however – the device is meant for small huddle rooms, 4-6 people close in, or as a “window” to somewhere else. It really is not going to do well with anything larger as-is.

    NPM

    1. Michael Graves

      I doubt very much that a different driver is required. Webcams tend to use standard UVC commands making them common to various devices. The CEO of VADDIO said this when I interviewed him a few weeks ago.

      http://www.voipusersconference.org/2014/vuc-472-vaddio-the-huddlestation/

      I do think that a more capable camera will extend the utility of this system. Even the Logitech BCC950 might be a better choice, but it’s built-in speakerphone is substandard compared to the Jabra device that Google has selected.

      1. Nick MuellerNick Mueller

        I agree, but the question is support. It may very well work, but if there are issues (e.g. ChromeOS software breaks it), Google will not provide support. And any advanced features won’t be available.

        NPM

  6. Tony

    “USB extender”
    Because wireless speakers/mics are WAY too cutting edge.

  7. Tristan Rhodes

    Great review, thanks for sharing. I think this will be a success, especially as it matures. For example, I would rather have the Jabra 510 with Bluetooth connectivity than run a USB cable across the room. (Yes, you will still need a power outlet for the speakerphone, but those are commonly built into the center of the table.)

    I like the integration with the Google Calendar.

    The $250/year is higher than I would have guessed when compared to $30/year for Chrome devices for education. However, it is still a fraction of the cost of traditional video conference setups.
    http://www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/education/devices/pricing.html

    Tristan

  8. Tristan Rhodes

    I just noticed the 510 includes a large battery (15 hrs talk time / 4 days standby time) so you don’t need power in the table, as long as you train users to store the speakerphone plugged in when not in use.

  9. PatS

    I’m a Xoogler and used the internal versio of this for years. I agree that it’s going to do very well with orgs that are already on google apps. I have not used the public version (yet).

    Minor point, for informal out-of-distributed-meeting presentations, it’s trivial easy to just create an ad-hoc hangout with two participants – the room and the presenter. So the ‘ugly’ comment about needing extra cables and switching inputs on the tv doesn’t really apply.

  10. don

    Google just did not get it right here as it simply uses a proprietary video compression format. Combine a good web cam , table microphone, active speakers with compatible UCC software solutions out there and Voillá you have a much better and cheaper, and most important “a compatible” solutions for companies that want to be able to do web conferencing for much less than half the price!

  11. avd

    I can’t see how *any* corporation in their right mind would use google’s chromebox for meetings. If people are concerned about the security implications for Google Glass, imagine the security implications for this. I find it incredibly appalling at how companies are skimping on security in favor for cheap services.

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