With the recently announced availability of the CX5100 Unified Conference Station this new device will start making an appearance in Lync environments all over the world. The goal of this article is to review changes and improvements in the completely redesigned CX5100 as well as those found in Lync 2013 servers and clients which were added specifically for this new device family.
For the most part this new model is very similar to the older CX5000 models it replaces, yet there are a few major differences between the previous CX5000 and CX5000HD models and the new CX5100 which are helpful to understand before using the new devices. The additional 5500 model is not yet available but it is nearly identical to the 5100 model so the content of this article applies to both new devices.
As a brief history the original Microsoft RoundTable was rebadged as the Polycom CX5000 and sold for numerous years without any major changes. But back in January 2012 a slightly refreshed model was released as the CX5000HD with one simple change to the unit: the inclusion of higher resolution cameras. While the original device was equipped with cameras capable of standard resolution each at best, these new cameras in the HD model were able to encode video at high resolution (720p). Unfortunately the panoramic video stream provided by the Real-Time Video (RTV) codec in Lync 2010, and still in use in Lync 2013, is limited to a single resolution which meant that the higher resolution could only be provided in the active-speaker window and not in the panoramic view. Due to video resolution limitations in Lync 2010 conference calls even that benefit was not achievable though, so the only time HD video was used in this device was during two-party peer video calls, which is not the traditional use-case for these devices.
As Lync 2013 and the new CX models were designed with each other in mind then these limitations are no applicable and thus the capabilities of the devices have increased quite a bit. Aside from any changes in Lync the new devices have greatly improved audio and video components, providing for a better quality experience across the board.
To recognize these benefits it can be helpful to also understand how each model operates in different Lync Server versions. As different as the physical devices are in terms of capabilities it is vital to understand that the version of the Lync client and server used is just as important.
Lync 2010 clients and the AV Conferencing service utilize RTV for all native video which includes a single, low resolution option for the panoramic stream of 1056×144 at a maximum of 15fps.
Regardless of the device used (CX5000, 5000HD, 5100, 5500) the video will be limited to RTV as supported by the Lync 2010 client. The only available panoramic resolution will be used for all devices, while the active speaker window resolution will depend on the specific scenario.
The active speaker window can be displayed in either 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios, depending on the device and call scenario. The 4:3 size will be shown in RTV-based Lync multi-party conference calls which are limited to VGA resolution (640×480) regardless of the device. But when using an HD-capable device (CX5000HD/5100/5500) in a peer-to-peer Lync call the active speaker can be shown in either 4:3 (for CIF and VGA resolution) or 16:9 widescreen (for 720p resolution).
Lync 2013 clients and the AV Conferencing service utilize both SVC and RTV for video sessions which provide multiple resolutions and frame rates for the panoramic video. All resolutions now support a maximum frame rate of 30fps but achieving this frame rate is highly dependent on the codec used and the connected workstation’s capabilities. The Lync 2013 client will intelligently select between the available resolutions and frame rates in scenarios with limited processing power, USB bandwidth, or network bandwidth.
In an almost unnoticeable change the Lync 2013 clients and Web App use a slightly taller 20:3 aspect ratio when displaying the panoramic video window, as opposed the to 22:3 ratio used by older Lync 2010, Office Communicator, and Live Meeting clients.
The inclusion of the new SVC codec introduces three separate resolutions available for the panoramic video.
- The lowest resolution (960×144) is also shared by RTV as implemented in Lync 2013 clients and servers and is sometimes referred to as Pano144p. Older RoundTable and CX5000 models are limited to this single resolution when used with Lync 2013. Lync 2013 clients may drop down to this resolution in the event that processing or bandwidth is limited.
- The next two resolutions, Pano192p (1280×192) and Pano288p (1920×288) are only available in SVC and thus can only be achieved with a newer CX5100/5500 device. The older CX5000/5000HD models are only compatible with RTV and thus are limited to using Pano144p when connected to Lync 2013 clients.
With Lync 2013 when SVC is utilized for either peer-to-peer or conference call scenarios the active speaker window can be displayed in as high as 1080p resolution at 16:9 widescreen. The active-speaker window will always be displayed in widescreen inside the gallery view, unlike the default square view of other Lync clients with standard webcams.
Understand that in most cases achieving 1080p is rare, as the inclusion of the panoramic ribbon on the screen uses up additional real estate such as that the displayed primary video window would not be able to scale above 720p on most monitors. As the industry moves towards ultra high definition displays (like 4K) then these types of high-resolution, high-bandwidth scenarios will become more common but for now most Lync video scenarios are using lower resolutions.
As the focus of this article is on the panoramic video experience a few screenshots are in order to show the obvious improvements in quality. As a screenshot cannot demonstrate anything related to frame rate then image quality is all that can be addressed in a simple side-by-side comparison. A combination of improved optics and video codecs produce the final result.
The first image was captured from a Lync 2010 client participating in a Lync Meeting with an original CX5000 device. The image was captured from an RTV video session at 1056×144 resolution.
The second image was captured from a Lync 2013 client participating in a Lync Meeting connected to a new CX5100. This image was captured during an SVC video session at 1920×288 resolution.
In a side-by-side comparison of the panorama video the image quality from the CX5100 is noticeably better, but when zooming in on the images the difference is night and day.
Understand that in order to leverage the higher quality panoramic video a new CX5100/5500 unit and Lync 2013 are required. Using either a newer camera with Lync 2010 or the older CX5000HD with Lync 2013 will not yield anything other than the lowest resolution option.
At first glance the newly redesigned unit looks just like the other latest generation Polycom video solutions right down to the shape and materials. The configuration is quite similar to the original RoundTable though utilizing as the overall design is still a table-top unit with 5 cameras and a separate ‘under the table’ unit, but as opposed to the older model this unit is more than just a power supply.
The notable changes to the table-top camera unit are that t he keypad and display have been removed from the device (the CX5500 will include a touch-screen control panel) and the traditional Polycom form-factor houses only 3 microphones as opposed to the 6 microphones in the older version.
The cameras have been upgraded to units which are capable of displaying up to 1080p at a maximum of 30fps as mentioned earlier.
The privacy cap is no longer a separate piece and is now fixed to the camera head. It is not motorized but is simply opened and closed by lifting up or pushing the cap down by hand.
The base unit contains the most changes as the majority of the video processing intelligence is now contained in this unit. In order to process the higher quality video it was necessary to add a considerable amount of processing power which in turns creates more heat, so a fan has been added to the box. In most scenarios this box would be located under the conference table and out of sight.
The camera unit includes a number of connection jacks hidden on the bottom, in addition to a handy cable-management plate.
- A pair of microphone jacks for supporting up to 2 external microphones. Newly redesigned extension microphones are available separately and although they look similar to the units used in the Polycom Group Series video conferencing system they are not the same and are not interchangeable.
- A proprietary data cable port which in effect tethers the base unit to the camera unit. This cable carries all communications between the camera and base units.
- .A USB 3.0 port which is used for the high-speed USB connection from the base unit to the camera unit. This cable carries the encoded video from the base back to the USB hub in the camera which then passes that data on to the connected Lync workstation.
The sides of the unit also include a pair of USB ports, as well as a physical security locking hole.
- The square USB-B jack is used for the cable which connects to a Windows Lync workstation. The supplied blue USB 3.0 A-to-B cable is used on this port and when connected to a USB 3.0 device is capable of supporting video at up to 30fps. When any USB 1.1 or 2.0 device or cable is used in the connection then lower frame rates will typically be seen.
- The rectangular USB-A jack can be used for maintenance tasks like upgrading the firmware from a USB flash drive. This process will be covered in a later blog article.
On the the base unit the traditional analog telephone connection has been dropped while the following ports are currently available.
- A functional RJ-45 Ethernet jack. In the CX5100 it can be used to provide firmware updates over the network and the CX5500 also uses this Ethernet connection to leverage the VoIP telephony capability.
- A pair of USB 3.0 ports. The encircled USB port adjacent to the data connector and located inside the white rectangle is used for the other end of the USB tether cable from the camera unit. The other port located outside the white box is used for factory maintenance tasks like firmware updates.
- A proprietary data cable port which connects to the data cable from the camera unit.
- The RCA audio jacks are not currently active and are included for possible future use.
The new units are compatible with a brand new management tool: the CX5100 Control Panel Application for Windows. This tool will be covered in greater detail in a later blog article, but briefly the capabilities it provides are much greater than what was possible with older units. Note that this tool is only compatible with the new CX5100/5500 models and cannot be used with older devices.
The control panel application cab be used to manage a USB-connected device directly or it can be used offline to create device profiles which can then be uploaded to a connected device later on.
The main functions of the control panel are to configure various settings on the device and retrieve diagnostic information for troubleshooting any issues. Available options include Ethernet network settings, software updates, the device password, and time/date settings.
There are also some advanced settings, including one very important one which addresses a limitation of the previous mode: video mute. In earlier models pressing the mute key on the device or muting the microphone using the Lync client would also ‘mute’ the video stream from the device by sending a black box with a mute icon instead of the camera images. There was previously no way to change this behavior, but using the Control Panel the new models can be configured to either mimic this behavior or instead only mute audio and leave the video running. Closing the security cap on the camera would then be the ideal way to mute the video stream separately from the audio stream.
Managing firmware updates is also much improved. Earlier models required the use of separate command line utilities for either the Microsoft Roundtable or Polycom CX5000/5000HD models. This management tool was very limited and often difficult to update the firmware with. It also required manually connecting each device to a PC to perform this method as there was no feasible central management solution. (Yes, there was the Windows Updates Services approach but honestly no one ever actually used that.)
With these new models the firmware can either be updated automatically over the network or manually using a USB flash drive. The first method is configured by selecting an update server location and frequency using the control panel. This will trigger the system to perform automatic updates on a set schedule. Alternatively the manual method is as simple as connecting a USB flash drive to a designated maintenance port and waiting for the system to locate the file on its own.