I’ve already written a bit about the Crestron Flex solution in a separate thread about Microsoft Teams Rooms, but thought I’d give it it’s own post considering the interest that the Crestron Flex solution seems to be getting at the moment. So, here goes…
Crestron have broken down their Flex offering into four ‘series’ of devices:
The P-Series are personal desktop devices. Currently, there are two re-badged Yealink devices, the UC-P100-T and the UC-P110-T. The only difference is that the screen of the P110 tilts. They run the native Teams audio-only software developed by Microsoft.
The M-Series are a set of room devices based on the Crestron Mercury hardware. There are a range of SKUs covering single screen, dual screen and camera options etc. All come with a UC Engine for the compute (except the M100).
- UC-M100-T — an audio only version running the Teams audio-only client. Built to complete with the ever-popular Poly Trio conference phone
- UC-M130-T — a single display version with a Logitech C930e USB camera
- UC-M150-T — a dual display version with the excellent Huddly IQ camera
Annoyingly there is no single display version with the Huddly IQ camera but you can obviously buy this camera separately from Huddly if you want to.
The Mercury hardware has been around for a while now and is pretty well known. The looks are a bit polarising but I’ve been told the sound is good. Crestron state it can cover up to 20ft for mic pickup. The touch screen is 7".
It’s worth noting that the AirMedia functionality built into the Mercury is not available when in ‘Flex’ mode.
This is where it gets good — the B-Series is my favourite Flex solution. There are currently 3 different SKUs and all come with the UC Engine mounted on a bracket (more on this later) and the TSW-1060 10" touch panel.
- UC-B130-T — a single display variant with a separate Logitech C930e sitting atop the (camera-less) sound bar
- UC-B140-T — a single display variant but with the Huddly IQ camera built-in to the smart soundbar
- UC-B160-T — a dual display variant, again with the Huddly IQ camera built-in to the smart soundbar
UPDATE 17.04.20: the UC-B130-T has now been discontinued. I think Crestron worked out you could buy it, dump the soundbar and be left with a very cheap UC Engine and touch panel.
Crestron state that the B-Series can cover rooms up to 23ft (7 metres). In our testing this is pretty much true. The mics do cover a pretty good distance. I’m not sure what distance the Huddly IQ camera is meant to cover, but we see it stop to detect faces when it gets to about 5m or more. This doesn’t typically hurt the experience though in my opinion — overall the experience is excellent.
The C-Series is a barebones “integrator” bundle which allows you to choose your own mics, speakers and camera. This is mainly aimed at bespoke or very large areas where you may need a specialist integrator’s help to install the room. It consists of just the UC Engine and the touch panel allowing you to pair it was *any* other A/V solution. Microsoft-certified DSP solutions for these sorts of spaces are apparently incoming and have been expected for some time. I’m suspecting that at Ignite 2019 we will see some more info on this.
As you will have seen mentioned above, the brains of the Flex solution comes in the form of what they call the UC Engine, which is effectively an Intel NUC, a power supply and an HDMI to USB converter mounted to a metal bracket. My initial thoughts when I saw this was “What have they done?” but in actual fact, it’s a great idea. First off, it comes completely pre-assembled, you just lift it out of the box and install. It can be mounted directly behind the display (it’s only 41mm deep) either straight to the wall or using the VESA mounting holes. It also has security covers to conceal the ports on the NUC to stop people messing with it which can be screwed down. Overall, it’s a great solution.
There are currently two different UC Engines based on whether you’ve ordered a single or dual display variant. The single display version uses an Intel NUC8i5BEK, while the dual display version uses the Intel NUC6i7KYK. The price difference between the single and dual screen products is much larger than the cost difference of these NUCs. For example, for the B140 versus the B160, apart from a few cables and a wireless keyboard which are included with the B160, the price difference is around £1700. I honestly think Crestron need to rejig their pricing a bit as it’s hard to justify the dual display option at the moment.
M-Series vs B-Series
If you’re looking at Flex for room systems, you’re probably looking at either the M-Series or B-Series devices. The P-Series are just personal devices and the C-Series is aimed at more complicated, large or bespoke areas.
The M-Series and the B-Series should be able to cover a large percentage of your rooms. The M-Series is stated to cover 20ft rooms and the B-Series is stated to cover 23ft. Interestingly, they actually cost the same (see the pricing section below), so price really isn’t a factor when comparing these two solutions.
Both can have the Huddly IQ camera, so there’s no benefit there.
The M-Series hardware only has a 7" touch screen, whilst the TSW device that comes with the B-Series is a 10" panel.
In my opinion, Crestron are missing a UC-M140-T SKU which would fill a hole nicely and offer a single display variant with the Huddly IQ camera. Currently you’ll have to buy the UC-M130-T and then bolt on a Huddly IQ yourself.
For me, the M-Series still suffers from one of the biggest issues facing Microsoft Teams Rooms; the native limitations of USB cable lengths. The M-Series hardware still requires you to run a USB 2.0 cable from the Mercury device on the table back to the UC Engine. USB 2.0 can only go 5 metres without some kind of active extender. Unless you want to spend extra on extending the USB cable and then dealing with all the reliability issues that go along with that, then I’d avoid that where possible.
At InfoComm 2019 Crestron announced the Mercury X which will apparently deliver the ability to connect to front of screen using a single (CAT5, I think) cable. I’m yet to see this though. It will also enable bring-your-own-codec (BYOC) whilst also being a Microsoft Teams Room, offering some kind of hybrid functionality. Will be interesting to see.
The one disadvantage I’ve found with the B-Series is that the soundbar really only has two ways of being mounted. You can either attach it to the wall, or you can sit it on a table or stand. Normal camera stands probably aren’t wide enough as the soundbar is over a metre wide. We have quite a few rooms with displays on stands or poles so would need to investigate some kind of custom stand to sit the soundbar on. Apart from that, the B-Series is very strong.
TSW-1060 Touch Panel
The TSW-1060 which Crestron use for a multitude of other solutions is a reliable touch panel with a whole host of mounting options. With regards to Flex it comes with both the B-Series and the C-Series bundles along with the table mount (pictured). With a list price of around £2k by itself, Crestron have heavily reduced it to supply it as part of the Flex solution.
The best feature from my point of view is that this touch panel is powered via PoE and is IP connected to the UC Engine. No need to run any long USB cables or dabble with unreliable and expensive USB extension solutions. Just go into the settings via the admin webpage, enter the IP of the UC Engine (you’ll need to fix or reserve this in DHCP) and the local admin password of the UC Engine (that you’ve changed from ‘sfb’, right?!?!) and you’re all set.
You may have seen me mentioned the Huddly IQ camera a few times. Crestron have taken a really good camera and integrated it into their smart soundbar included with the B-Series and have also bundled it with some of the M-Series kits.
It has a 150-degree field of view and boasts AI capabilities which allow it to frame the room attendees and gather room analytics. These room analytics should eventually make their way into XiO Cloud, but I haven’t see this yet.
The genius framing is very impressive and means the room attendees no longer have to position the camera at the start of the meeting or when someone else enters the room.
It really is good.
Management & Monitoring
This is an area in its infancy for the entire Microsoft Teams Rooms ecosystem and solutions really are lacking. Microsoft are going to be bringing management and monitoring features into the Team Admin Center (TAC) at some point. Again, I suspect Ignite to shed more light on this.
Crestron are also venturing into this area with the cloud-based provisioning, management and monitoring service called XiO Cloud. Licenses come in the form of Standard or Premium licenses. Premium allows for SMS and email alerts, so you probably want Premium anyway.
Crestron bundle a free 1-year Premium license for XiO Cloud with every Flex solution. In most cases, this is two licences — one for the UC Engine and one for the touch panel/Mercury. Premium licences for XiO Cloud are typically around £70–80 each, so I assume for each Flex solution you’ll need to spend around £150 each year (I’m trying to get this confirmed).
As for features, with regards to the UC Engine it’s all pretty primitive right now. Crestron have a feature chart which can be found here. Right now, all you can do is configure network details, remotely reboot, see online/offline status and configure alerts based on this. I’m assuming future features hinge on what Microsoft allow 3rd parties to control to a certain extent. We’ll see what happens here.
Regarding the TSW-1060 touch panel, XiO Cloud can actually a bit more. The key feature being remote control. From version 2.006.0046.01 onward you have the ability to remotely manage the touch panel. I don’t know of anyone else doing this right now for Microsoft Teams Rooms, so this is a huge win for XiO Cloud right now.
You have to make all purchases of Flex kit via an authorised Crestron dealer or distributor but if you want an idea on costs you can get these from the Crestron website. To see prices for your region, just go to http://crestron.com/teams, click on How To Buy in the top right and then choose your region and country. You will see something like this:
One thing of note is that each Crestron Flex solution comes with 3 years warranty by default (5 years if you’re part of the Enterprise Partner Program). There is no yearly maintenance costs like we had with Polycom and the Group Series. This makes the running costs a lot more palatable.
There are a couple of SKUs that I think Crestron need to add to their portfolio to satisfy various requirements:
- M140 — I think there needs to be a single screen M-Series option with a Huddly IQ camera. The Huddly IQ camera is awesome and there is a general shift (in our organisation, at least) to move to single screen rooms. I don’t want to have to buy the M130 and replace a C930e camera with a Huddly IQ.
- C130/140 — I’ve stated before that the C-Series hardware is for large or bespoke rooms, but this doesn’t have to be the case. There is a perfectly legitimate need to use the UC Engine and TSW touch panel in much smaller rooms and pair it with other Microsoft-certified USB devices. For example, if I have dedicated huddle furniture or displays on stands which can’t physically accommodate the smart soundbar. In this instance I don’t want to have to buy a dual display equipped system if I don’t need it (at extra expense). Likewise, I don’t want to buy the B130 and just discard the smart soundbar and C930e camera. Just give me a C130/140 that gives me the single screen UC Engine and the TSW-1060 touch panel. That way I can make sure my entire Microsoft Teams Rooms estate is fully Crestron and then I can take advantage of everything XiO Cloud gives me.
As I stated previously, we have a B160 in production right now. We replaced a Polycom Group Series which was very easy. Here are some shots of our install.
We took the displays down and decided to mount the UC Engine between the two display mounts. One thing this has made us aware of is to find a mount small enough to allow the UC Engine to sit next to it. I’ll update this post when I find a good one.
Crestron supply this very decent template for mounting the smart soundbar a good distance from the bottom of the display.
Here’s a few shots of the finished product:
The Flex solution is a massive success and exactly what Microsoft needed to get Microsoft Teams Rooms out there in larger organisations. Of course there is still room for improvement but it’s a great starting point. We haven’t had much success getting SRS/MTR systems into our rooms up until now but Crestron Flex is certainly helping with this.