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This story appears in the March 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

A good videoconferencing system is worth its weight in plane tickets. Videoconferencing is a safe, time-saving and economical choice for entrepreneurs who are looking to cut down on business travel. Savings on hotel bills, meals and transportation costs can quickly add up to the price of a system. Even better, the technology has finally reached a level of quality and affordability that makes it a solid option for budget-conscious business owners who don't want to sacrifice a professional image.

Choosing a videoconferencing system is a lot like shopping for a computer, where you might look at an Apple, a PC, a laptop or a handheld PDA. With videoconferencing systems, there are many different varieties with different costs, features and requirements. Three popular videoconferencing hardware types are webcams, set-top devices and integrated systems. Webcams are generally consumer-level products, while set-top units and all-in-one appliances are stronger choices for professional use. Narrow down your options by considering the level of quality you need, the number of people you will have participating and, of course, your budget.

Webcam-style videoconferencing is well-known for being inexpensive and notorious for being unreliable. In its simplest form, it takes a $40 camera sitting on top of your monitor and a dial-up connection to broadcast through. You can try this at home, but don't do it at the office. Slow dial-up speeds and low bandwidth make for small, choppy images and iffy audio. Webcams do have their uses, though: For informal business communications among colleagues where a professional appearance isn't needed, a webcam like the $100 Logi-tech QuickCam Pro 3000 and a DSL or cable Internet connection will suffice.

The next step up in videoconferencing is a set-top device. Here, you'll have to provide a high-speed connection--often, an ISDN line--and a monitor or appropriate TV set for viewing. For example, the $2,195 Sony PCS1600 can handle several people in a room and requires an ISDN line. That's quite a price jump from a webcam, but it pays dividends in flexibility and reliability. If you already have ISDN installed, you're in good shape, because most set-top videoconferencing units will work fine.

Videoconferencing systems that work over IP (Internet Protocol-based networks are becoming more and more popular and it seems that they will eventually steal the king-of-the-hill crown from older ISDN technology. IP opens more possibilities for data sharing and Web collaboration without ISDN. Of course, you still need a broadband Internet connection that provides enough bandwidth to support smooth videoconferencing. The VCon ViGo Professional is an interesting personal videoconferencing unit. It comes with a compact camera and a headset that hooks up to a PC through USB, and works on a fast IP network.

If you want wider-angle viewing, check out the $5,490 Tandberg 1000. This system works over either ISDN or an IP-based network and offers wireless network connectivity. Part of the price tag is due to the all-in-one nature of the device. A built-in LCD screen means you don't have to go out and make any extra investment to get a spare monitor, but it also limits you when it comes to the size of display. Still, convenience is the name of the game. Entrepreneurs using a wireless network will appreciate being able to move the videoconferencing unit from room to room without having to deal with any setup headaches.

With a decline in business travel due to safety concerns, videoconferencing is the next best thing to being there. And the hardware we covered is just the tip of the iceberg. For more options, visit videoconferencing equipment and service providers First Virtual Communications, GoBeam, Kinko'sand

Shopping List
Going straight to videoconferencing: Let's find out what systems are blockbusters in business communications.

QuickCam Pro 3000
(800) 231-7717
Desktop WebcamUSB connection, 640 x 480 resolution, built-in microphone$100
iPower 680
(800) 716-6000
Set-topISDN or IP-based network, advanced collaboration features$5,300
(800) 686-7669
Set-topISDN, dockable camera$2,195
Tandberg 1000
(703) 709-4281
Integrated systemISDN, IP-based network or wireless LAN, built-in LCD screen$5,490
ViGo Professional
(512) 583-7700
Personal applianceIP-based network, USB connection, portable$1,099
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