How to Choose the Right Videobar for your Workspace

Published: June 26, 2024
Bose Videobar VB1 with Leon's Tonecase FIT Universal (TcFIT-U). Courtesy / Bose

Editor’s note: Commercial Integrator has teamed up with the Interactive Multimedia & Collaborative Communications Alliance (IMCCA), the New York-based non-profit industry association for unified communication and workplace collaboration, to produce a quarterly supplement, titled Collaboration Today and Tomorrow, that focuses on all things collaboration from multiple perspectives.

It’s hard to predict technological advances in the AV industry, but we all saw videobars coming a mile away. Soundbars were already a winner. Customers loved the way they looked and sounded both at home and in corporate spaces. AV teams loved the easy installation and operation. The emergence of videobars was inevitable once technology advanced to produce cameras that were not only high in quality, but also affordable and compact to embed in a soundbar. 

Today, the mix of affordability, ease of use and aesthetics has made videobars the dominant form factor for meeting room video. If you take a walk on the show floor of any tech trade show, you will see videobars from a surprising variety of vendors. Everyone’s customers are asking for them, so every AV vendor is finding a way to offer them, original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or otherwise. 

This isn’t just a result of vendors hoping for the latest fad to catch on. These videobars are — and have been — selling. We already see them everywhere. If you go into any corporate boardroom and look below the big monitor, you are likely to see a videobar. Then, if you go to smaller group workspaces, you will find smaller, more affordable videobars in room after room. 

Let’s take a quick look at the history of videobars and their differentiators. We’ll also offer some tips for picking the right videobar for your clients’ spaces. 

History of the Videobar 

Before the videobar, we had the room kit, which was a bundle of appliances needed to do the same thing that a videobar does. It would include a separate microphone, speaker, camera, and all the various cables and connectors. These kits took off with the popularity of UC software room services like Zoom Rooms, Microsoft Teams Rooms and Webex Rooms. All you had to do was simply include a mini-PC with room software in the kit for easy room setup. However, it still required a little more than plug and play.  

The first entrants into the space were terrible (devices that David J. Danto, editor of Collaboration Today and Tomorrow, referred to as “Soda-Cracker Videoconferencing”). This was primarily because the desired form factor was released before the imaging sensors available for cameras of that day were powerful enough to do the job. A webcam on a speaker/microphone bar was an insult to the quality that had already been established. 

As camera technology improved, our major vendors of previous room devices and kits agreed with the need for a simpler solution based on the user feedback, and they were among the first to develop truly useful videobars. Notable early entries include Logitech’s Rally Bar, Poly’s Studio X and Cisco’s Room Kit Mini. 

Things moved quickly after that. It seems like, one day, all the top vendors announced their videobar; then, at the next year’s trade shows, every vendor on the floor was selling one. Although there have been some advances in the last few years, there have been no major changes. They just get a little sleeker and smarter every year. 

The Differentiators of Videobars 

There are many differentiators to consider when choosing videobars: price, vendor reputation, camera field of view, AI abilities, audio quality…even how the bar looks on your wall. However, all those factors are secondary to a far more important and fundamental question: Can the bar itself run your room software? 

There are only two categories of videobars.  

  • Category One: Videobars with an embedded minicomputer (often Android) that can run Zoom, MS Teams and/or Webex room software.  
  • Category Two: Videobars that just have AV components and require an external PC to run the room software. 

You must get this fundamental distinction right and understand which option best suits your needs before you can start to look at videobars. At the simplest level, if you are planning to have PCs in your meeting spaces that will be capable of handling your room software, it might be more affordable to get category two videobars. Otherwise, it might be easier in the long run, and worth the extra expense, to get a true all-in-one device with a category one videobar. Additionally, videobars with built-in computing can often support external “bring your own device” (BYOD) modes, typically referred to as “pass-through.” Choosing the right computing model requires understanding your specific needs and how often you’ll use each type.  

Another consideration is room coverage. For small rooms you want a wide field of view to capture people sitting up close to the screen. For larger rooms you need more powerful audio and a camera with the ability to get higher resolution on zoomed-in shots.  

The Newest Differentiators 

As more firms begin to launch their own version of videobars, new features and capabilities have come to market. Some of the newest considerations include the following: 

  • Directional Mounting: Some videobars could only mount one way; others could mount upside down, as well, electronically flipping the camera 180 degrees. One new entrant can now flip the camera 90 degrees to allow for vertical mounting between two displays. 
  • Embedded Sharing: One of the newest entrants only works with external computers (as an in-room device or in a BYOD model) but also allows for wireless sharing to the displays both in a meeting and when no call is taking place. 
  • Functional and Aesthetic Finishes: Some firms gave their videobars ‘soft and cuddly’ finishes, which were pretty, but completely unusable in environments where they required frequent cleaning/disinfecting. Some bars now come with either soft or solid grill covers. 
  • Price: While some firms entered the videobar space by purchasing devices made by third parties (OEM/ODM firms) and putting their logo on it, these third-party firms have said, “Wait just a second!”, and they have brought their own branded bars to the big and confused market. This means it’s always a good idea to ask a supplier of videobars if they made their own or purchased it from a third-party — and, if purchased, how much control they had over the design. 
  • Management: The compact videobar boasts a sleek and straightforward design; however, managing them at scale within an enterprise — be it dozens, hundreds, or thousands — presents a more complex challenge. Ensure you understand how each manufacturer recommends managing large deployments and whether their management platforms are compatible with other video systems you may have. 

Choosing the right videobar often boils down to personal preference and specific features. You might be swayed by a unique feature, such as an AI auto-tracking function from a certain vendor. Keep in mind that these preferences can be subjective. A practical approach is to first decide on the software you plan to use and then select a videobar that is compatible or certified with that software. If you anticipate using multiple software platforms or switching to a different one in the future, prioritize finding a videobar that offers flexible support for these changes. It is also important to try to align the brand and management of your videobars with those of any larger (non-bar) systems you have deployed in your enterprise, keeping software updates and operational management simpler. 

Final Thoughts 

Videobars have dramatically simplified the process of setting meeting spaces, while arguably increasing the ease-of-use and quality of the meeting experience. It is just the right design at the right time. While I expect incremental improvements and developments, I do not expect any major revolutions or advances in the near future. Foreseeably, for the next five years or so, this will be the way we set up our meeting spaces. 

It’s a testament to the design and development of videobars over the last few years — our industry has nailed it. Obviously, the more pedigreed vendors will have better quality, reliability and extra features, but the average videobar today is excellent. High resolution, great sound quality, plug and play, and certified (or, at least, works well with major UC room software). What else is there to ask for? 

Videobars represent an amazing time for the business video industry. For decades we have been waiting for the big hardware development that would make business video affordable and accessible for all workspaces. We knew video was essential for the future of business, but we lacked the right products to enable real adoption. Today, we have videobars, and they are everything we ever wanted. Although the hardware remains important, the really interesting developments in the next few years for UC will be in software and workflow. 

For more Collaboration Today and Tomorrow content, check out our website archives.

David Maldow is the founder and CEO of Let’s Do Video. 

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