Skype Room System/Microsoft Teams Rooms Review: 2019 Edition
Just over a year ago I had a bit of a rant about the state of the native Microsoft meeting room systems. You can read the original post here.
Since that time the original post has had almost 5000 views, we’ve had Ignite, we’ve had Enterprise Connect, Trump has damaged the world some more, Brexit still hasn’t happened, Skype Room System is now called Microsoft Teams Rooms but most importantly, new hardware is starting to appear.
So, I thought it was time for a bit of an update to see where we are on the three areas I was moaning about:
- Maintenance & Management
- Hardware (specifically moving the endpoint to the table and associated installation issues)
Disclaimer: I actually really like SRS/MTR. But, there’s always room for improvement, right?!
Maintenance & Management
This is still a bit of waiting game in my opinion because I know there are lots of people working on monitoring and management tools for MTR. It’s all currently a bit piecemeal. In my organisation, we use Intune to ensure the right kind of Windows policy is on the endpoints and also push our enterprise-standard AV client. But beyond that we really don’t have great visibility on the health of the MTR systems. OMS is ‘okay’ but it needs to be better and way more intuitive. The whole environment is crying out for an out of the box portal with easy views to show me when my endpoints are online, when they are in a call or when an issue is suspected; for example, when Skype or Teams is not logged in or when a mic or camera is unplugged. Remote view and remote management to help users in the room would also be useful. For me, those types of things are essential. Once you have those, you can start on the reporting side. I don’t doubt this will come, but to compete with what people are used to with traditional VC solutions it needs to happen soon.
This is the area where things have moved on most significantly in the past 12 months. The ‘Surface Pro in a dock’ solution has (thank God) pretty much disappeared. This is a good thing. It presented too many issues, both from a cabling and installation point of view but also a reliability point of view. I heard many horror stories of Surface Pro devices dying after a certain amount of time — I’m just not sure they were the best devices to use in a 24x7 scenario.
Microsoft have rightly gone to the people for whom compute is their bread and butter. HP and Lenovo do compute for fun and for the partners without a background in compute, an Intel NUC device is a great choice for stability and reliability.
More and more USB peripherals are coming to market, which again is good to satisfy many room types. The Polycom Studio video bar has offered the Logitech Meetup some competition, and whilst not technically MTR certified (yet), it works very well in my opinion. The active speaker tracking is excellent. I just wish they’d have put an ethernet port on it for provisioning and firmware updates to avoid having to unnecessarily grapple with enterprise WiFi bullshit.
My biggest gripe a year ago was how the hardware that was available simply wasn’t fit for purpose and caused too many trade-offs when it came to installation. Moving the compute to the table meant lots of cable runs, and due to the nature of the solution this meant USB cable runs which ended up being limited by the USB standard itself. This, for me, was a deal-breaker. Running something like HDMI, which is fairly resilient is one thing, but once you have to extend USB, it’s just messy and unreliable. Combine this with multi-function rooms that have moving furniture and you’re just asking for trouble.
The solution that suffered most from this was the HP Slice. We only managed to install a couple of these into dedicated huddle room furniture because of the 1 metre cable length from the Slice to the touch panel. The Slice uses USB 3 for its touch panel, so can’t be easily extended, and in fact HP told us it couldn’t be. There will apparently be a refresh in 2020 to overcome this. I’m wondering if they’ll go back to USB 2 to allow extending?
Even if HP could solve the touch panel cabling issue, the Slice is still actually pretty deep so it’s debatable whether this could be mounted behind a screen or not anyway. On a stand it would probably be okay, but using a wall mount might cause issues.
I’ve not really used the Lenovo solution all that much, but in my opinion it suffers from the same cabling issues that the HP sees. You’ll still have to run USB to the camera at the front of the room as well as HDMI to the displays at the front of the room.
So, what has given me cause to feel more buoyant about the MTR solution? Well, there are two solutions that look promising:
Logitech have a number of bundles combining the Tap touch panel with the Meetup or the Rally system. The Base system combines just the Tap touch panel and the NUC. The advantage of this solution is that as standard it ships with a 10m USB cable (named the Strong USB cable) which is a shielded cable that makes it easier to run under floors or in walls and ceilings. The length of this cable means that the NUC can easily be homed behind the display. 10m, in my opinion, would satisfy most rooms, but for larger rooms Logitech sell a 25m version (admittedly for a steep cost, but at least the option is there). The Tap should arrive with customers in the 3rd week of June, so not long now. Also, before the end of 2019 there will be a PoE adapter for the Tap touch panel so you can avoid the external power adapter.
In my opinion, the most promising arrival to the MTR scene is the Crestron Flex system. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Crestron kit, mainly due to the necessity to program everything, and then re-program everything when something changes. In this instance though, I think the rigidity mandated by Microsoft for the MTR could be its saving grace.
The compute part of the Crestron Flex solution comes in the form of what they call the UC-Engine. This is an Intel NUC pre-assembled on a bracket which is slim enough to be mounted behind a display. The UC-Engine is the same no matter what series you buy (albeit a different version for single vs dual display options).
My favourite offering from the Crestron Flex series is the B-Series system. In addition to the UC-Engine (above), the B-Series has the Smart Soundbar which features a Huddly IQ camera (with 150-degree field-of-view and ‘Genius’ framing) as well as large speakers and a beam-forming mic array with a pickup range of 7m.
The camera doesn’t zoom in on the active speaker but rather frames the room to make sure all attendees can be seen. If everyone sits one side of the table, it will zoom in on one side to make sure everyone is in view. If a person joins the meeting and sits the other side of the table it will zoom out to make sure everyone is in view. It’s clever stuff and is very effective. No longer is any user interaction required to make sure the remote participants can see the room attendees properly.
One of the other advantages of the Crestron Flex solution is that the touch panel is IP connected (hallelujah!). Unlike the Logitech Tap or pretty much every other MTR, you don’t need to run long USB cables. This makes deployment very simple, especially in multi-function rooms that have movable furniture.
The only downside I’ve experienced so far with the Crestron solution is the massive uplift in cost for the dual-display option. Crestron state there is a hardware difference with the NUC (to add a second video output) but the uplift is more than any NUC would ever cost, so that doesn’t make much sense to me. Crestron need to fix that.
Update (19.07.19): It would appear there is a difference in Intel NUC hardware between the UC Engine provided on the dual screen versus the single screen offering. My point still stands though; there is no way the NUC6i7KYK costs £1700 more than the NUC8i5BEK. In fact, on Scan.co.uk there is a £175 difference. Slight design change to the bracket too, it seems.
In the example above there is a £1,753 different between the single and dual display version. The B160 includes a few more cables than the B140 but £1,753 is a lot of money for a second screen option.
Overall though, the Crestron Flex solution looks excellent and should be investigated if you’re looking at SRS/MTR.
There are also SRS/MTR products from Yealink, which I haven’t tested mainly because they suffer from the same USB limitations the other solutions see. They also utilise desk-based mics (albeit movable ones with DECT), which I want to avoid (I would imagine they will be out of charge or missing in 1 day in my company). Moving on to my next point…
A year has passed and I still don’t like desk based microphones. Not a whole lot has changed here. None of the MTR partners have produced USB-based ceiling mics and Microsoft still haven’t certified any DSPs which can interface popular ceiling arrays such as the Sennheiser TeamConnect 2 or Shure MXA-910 ceiling tiles.
That being said, I expect Microsoft to certify some DSP solutions soon. This is good, but will significantly increase the cost for an MTR room solution, so will probably only be feasible for extra large or bespoke spaces.
A good alternative to ceiling microphones are the current crop of mic and camera integrated soundbars. The Crestron one (mentioned above) in particular can cover 7m which is a fairly decent size. Crestron reckon this is about 18–20 people. For huddle/small rooms the Polycom Studio or Logitech Meetup will do nicely.
Things are definitely look up for SRS/MTR. Most of the 2019 solutions feature a “compute behind the display” type architecture which is a massive leap forward for ease of installation and and something I moaned about back in 2018. The Crestron Flex solution is even getting rid of the long USB cable issue with IP connected touch panels, which again is a massive improvement.
That being said, USB’s weakness is also one of its strengths. There’s nothing to stop you piecing together your ideal MTR solution from all the available partners. Like the Logitech Tap, but don’t like Meetup or Rally? Use Polycom Studio or Crestron B-Series smart soundbar instead. There are loads of options.
One area where the hardware needs to improve is the need for MTR-certified DSPs. Once these arrive it will be another step forward for SRS/MTR and will ensure almost limitless options for room size. I know this can technically be done now, but if the rest of the enterprise is anything like my organisation, certification and supportability is a massive deal.
Lastly, big improvements are still needed for provisioning, management and monitoring if SRS/MTR is to be taken seriously in the Enterprise. I am hoping this will arrive soon to compete give support teams what they’re used to with traditional VC environments.
Overall though, 2019 has been fairly good for SRS/MTR. See you in 2020!