Building the Ultimate, Low-Cost Internet Telephone/Videoconferencing Workstation

by Brian McConnell

You can turn your desktop computer into a powerful communication platform for telephony, videoconferencing, and whiteboarding (2 or more people working on the same document at the same time). However, until recently, installing the hardware and software needed to make this work was difficult. Fortunately, this has all changed with the introduction of several new products and technologies which provide high-quality video and audio at a low price.

This short tutorial explains how to turn an ordinary desktop computer into a multimedia communications platform which you can use to communicate internally, and with people outside your company (via the internet). The cost to build this system, excluding the computer, is less than $300. If you use the system to communicate with people in other cities, the system will pay for itself in the form of reduced telephone tolls. Apart from the cost savings, you'll be able to communicate in ways you were not able to before.

Step one - upgrading your PC
While you can do this on Windows 95, it will be much easier to install and configure the audio and videoconferencing hardware on Windows 98. Windows 98 adds support for a new technology called Universal Serial Bus (USB). This is the single most important improvement in Windows 98, and it's importance cannot be overstated. USB is an expansion bus which enables you to connect many different kinds of peripherals (printers, video cameras, audio devices, disk drives, etc.) to your computer. Unlike older systems, USB is "hot swappable." This means you can connect and disconnect peripherals while your computer is running. You can also connect many more peripherals to a single USB port than conventional serial ports.

First, check to see if your computer has a USB connector. If it does, then you should not have to upgrade your PC to support USB. You may need to go into your computer's setup (or BIOS) screen to activate USB support. (When you boot your computer, you will usually see a message like "Press F1 for setup" before it loads Windows. This leads to the BIOS/setup menu). Do not make changes to your BIOS settings unless Windows 98 is unable to detect devices connected to your USB port. This should work automatically.

Second, you will probably want to invest in a device called a USB hub. A USB hub allows you to daisy chain many devices off of one USB port. Most PCs have 1 or 2 USB ports, not enough if you plan to connect many peripherals. A USB hub will also help by putting the cabling/plugs in a more accessible location. Most USB ports are located on the back of the computer (difficult to get to). You can put the USB hub on your desktop so you have easy access to USB ports. Belkin makes a reasonably priced 7-port hub (supports up to 7 devices).

If your PC does not support USB, you can add USB support with an expansion card. You need to have at least one PCI expansion slot in your PC to do this. If your PC is several years old, you might want to think about upgrading to a new machine so you don't need to bother with this. If the machine is less than 2 years old, this should work fine. If you don't have any free expansion slots, you can also find converters which turn a parallel (printer) port into a USB port (although you should expect lousy performance). The good news is that most PCs sold in the past year or so have USB connectors built in.

Next, you need to make sure your PC is fast enough for the job. Internet telephony, and particularly videoconferencing, require a lot of computing horsepower. This is because the audio and video signals are compressed to reduce the amount of information which needs to be transmitted between endpoints. This process is very computationally intensive, so a fast PC with lots of memory (64 MB or more) will make a big difference in performance. Generally speaking, if your PC has a 200 MHz processor or faster, and 48 MB of memory or more, you should be in good shape.

Step two - upgrading your PC's audio system for live conferencing
Most computers have high-quality sound systems built in. Unfortunately, the sound system in most PCs is designed for playing and recording audio files, not for real-time audio services like telephony. Because of this, you get less than optimal performance when you use your PC's built-in sound card to place internet phone calls.

Quicknet Technologies makes an excellent audio card designed specifically for network conferencing called the Internet PhoneJACK. You can use it with a headset, or you can connect an ordinary telephone to the card (the phone is tricked into thinking it is connected to an ordinary phone line).

The Internet PhoneJACK supports what is called "full-duplex" operation. This means both parties in a conversation can be talking at the same time. Most PC sound cards only support "half duplex" which means that only one party can be talking at a time, the result is an awkward "walkie-talkie" effect similar to that encountered when using a cheap speakerphone. The Quicknet card includes several other features designed to improve performance. One is echo cancelation. This means the card automatically eliminates echo from your conversation. It takes a while to explain why network phone calls are prone to problems with echo, but the Quicknet card takes care of it. Lastly, the Quicknet card has its own microprocessor designed to compress the audio signal. This dramatically reduces latency, or delay, which is common in network phone calls.

Installing the Quicknet card is easy, and requires a single ISA expansion slot. The card is plug-and-play compatible, so it will be automatically recognized when it is installed in a Windows 95 or Windows 98 machine. It can also be installed in a Windows NT machine, but this is a bit trickier. The Quicknet Internet PhoneJACK sells for about $160.

There are other full-duplex audio cards, but to date the Quicknet card is the best product we have seen for internet teleconferencing.

Step three - adding video to your PC
Next, you need to add full motion video capability to your PC. This used to be a difficult and expensive process, requiring the installation of video capture cards, balky software, and so forth. The good news is that with the arrival of USB, you can now buy cameras which simply snap into a USB port. We looked at several low-cost USB cameras which were designed with videoconferencing in mind, including the Logitech QuickCam and the Kodak Digital Science DVC323.

The Kodak camera was our hands-down favorite. The DVC323 is a plug-and-play color video camera which produces sharp (up to 640 by 480 resolution) images at speeds of up to 30 frames per second (same as broadcast TV). The camera was very easy to install and mount, and produces good quality images, especially considering that the camera sells for less than $150. The camera ships with software that enables you to tweak camera settings to deal with different lighting conditions, optimal picture quality, as well as photo software which enables you to use the camera to shoot still images.

The DVC323 is compatible with Microsoft NetMeeting, one of the most popular videoconferencing programs on the market, and produces good quality images for video calls.

We also looked at the Logitech QuickCam. This is a good product, but in our experience the picture quality was not as good. The colors tended to be washed out, and the pictures were not as detailed. Also, the camera's mount was poorly designed, so the camera was easily knocked off its mount whereas the Kodak camera was much harder to knock off balance.

Since both cameras sell for approximately the same price, we're currently recommending the Kodak DVC323 camera as the best choice.

Step four - installing Microsoft NetMeeting
Microsoft NetMeeting, now bundled with Internet Explorer version 5.x and later, is a free audio/videoconferencing program which allows you to place phone and video calls over your PC network or over the internet. NetMeeting complies with the H.323 standard, an important industry standard for network phone and video calls. This means you can use NetMeeting to make and receive voice and video calls from other H.323 compatible programs and devices (such as videoconferencing terminals).

Microsoft NetMeeting provides the following services:

  • Internet telephony: make and receive voice calls over the internet (or your company network)
  • Internet videoconferencing: make and receive video calls over the internet (or your company network)
  • Application sharing: work collaboratively on a document or presentation
  • Whiteboarding: create a virtual drawing board which you can scribble on
  • Text chat: exchange text messages with other parties

Microsoft NetMeeting can be installed with Internet Explorer. To download it, visit the Microsoft Internet Explorer web site or the Microsoft NetMeeting web site.