Product Name: Polycom C100S Communicator
Estimated Price: $150.00
Pros: Easy set-up, looks cool, sounds great.
Cons: Only works on Windows XP; USB connector cord is too short; poor performance in noisy environments.
Polycom, legendary for quality sound in its conferencing and handset IP hardware, swings for the grandstand with a cool-looking, uh, communicator that permits hands-free softphone IP telephony.
With umpteen billion Skype users spanning the globe, it would seem like a smart play.
The C100S can also serve as an external speaker for the computer to which it is attached. Through its stereo audio-out port it can be connected to a computer’s desk-top speaker system, providing umph to all of the aural aspects of the computing experience.
Build and Design
Like other Polycom products, The C100S Communicator is well-made, with a vaguely futuristic look to it. A tad larger than pocket-size at 5.25″ x 3.25″, the device comes with a single loudspeaker providing a frequency response of 300 Hz to 19 KHz, and two cardioid microphones producing 200 Hz to 20 KHz frequencies.
At 5.4 ounces, it has pleasing heft and its overall look and feel is high quality.
Five buttons on the face of the unit permit one-touch launching of the Skype application, call pick-up and hang-up, volume up and down, and mic muting. There is also a groovy LED light ring around the circular button interface for indication of call status. A 3.5mm stereo headset jack permits call privacy or pass-through to a desk-top speaker system.
Installation and Ease of Use
Thirty MB of software to operate the Communicator installs via CD on machines running Windows XP only. Installation is quick and easy, and a user can be up and running with the device in minutes.
Included with the Communicator software is software for using Skype, in case the user doesn’t already have it installed. The copy we tested came with 5 free Skype Out minutes for making calls to non-Skype telephone numbers, and a coupon included with the device documentation is good for an additional 30 free Skype Out minutes.
Though not difficult, coordinating the unit’s speaker and microphone settings with both the host computer and the Skype application must be done for it to function properly.
The C100S doesn’t aim for complication or intricacy. In its way it’s no different from the beige (or black, or red) plastic cube that sat on the corner of many an executive’s desk 35 years ago, what pre-computer generations referred to as a “squawk box.” The intervening years have made for much higher fidelity and sleeker design, but the functionality hasn’t changed. Hands-free telephony seems to have always been a worthy aspiration.
With the C100S, Polycom hitched its wagon to Skype, the wildly popular IP softphone that has millions of people talking to one another over the internet each day. The C100S works seamlessly with it, and one could hardly moan about anything to do with its features or functionality from an ease-of-use or performance standpoint. The device may operate flawlessly with non-Skype softphone applications as well, though the on-board application launching button is hard-coded to work exclusively with Skype, and Polycom publishes clear disclaimers with respect to fidelity, echo effects, and functionality using non-Skype applications.
The green and red LED light ring gives the C100S a sense of life and functionality beyond its reality as a “dumb device” but the reality is that it’s just that. The hard-wired USB plug is attached to a length of cord making the unit functional with the average laptop computer, but one far too short to make the thing useful with any desktop or tower computer whose USB port sits more than a couple of feet from the work space.
Performance and Innovation
On calls made in a large open area with a modicum of ambient noise, the C100S seemed disappointing. Called parties complained of low volume from the unit’s microphones, despite their being set to maximum gain, and the “crystal-clear” sound promised by Polycom’s marketing material seemed underwhelming.
Later, in the same large space with lower ambient noise levels, fidelity and mic levels seemed more normal, though not noticeably better than using the computer’s built-in microphone and a set of inexpensive desk-top speakers. In a third, smaller and enclosed environment with little ambient noise, the C100S really showed its stuff. Called parties seemed to be right in the room with us and they said our conversation was loud and clear on their end as well.
Polycom’s “Acoustic Clarity” technology does make the C100S stand out in ideal circumstances and the device is clearly functional in more challenging environments, but it’s frankly hard to see much to get excited about beyond the prospect of having another cool-looking toy around.
We forgot after testing phone calls that the unit was still the computer’s default speaker device, and found the large, accessible mute button quite functional for taming the variety of sounds our OS was set to disperse.
Polycom’s innovative contribution to VoIP technology is unmistakable. The microphones and speakers in the company’s hardware outshine all comers and have been doing so long enough to have created a reputation for quality and reliability that support a premium price for all of their products. And while the technology behind the C100S has been around for some time, it is potentially a device that could bring softphone telephony into greater acceptance. At a suggested retail price of just under $150, it can be had for $20 – $30 less than that from a number of on-line merchants.
An enduring knock on IP telephony has been its requirement of a headset, though USB phones have also recently come in for their share of abuse.
Comes now Polycom, with a solid reputation for stellar sound in business-class IP telephony products, to market with a $150 gadget that brings their legendary sound to your Skype account, and promises the finest handsfree telephony experience.
The C100S Communicator (available in Grey or Blue, with a handy zippered carrying case) is a very portable monaural device with a USB plug you can set as a recording and speaker out device on a Windows machine, but it does not work on a Mac.
It is Plug & Play after an easy download and installation process that just so happens to require a system reboot, but where’s the news in that?
The news is that — at least in the admittedly unscientific, irresolvably real-world environment of Voxilla’s testing lab, where IP telephony products come and go, the Communicator didn’t bring much to the audio experience that comparably priced devices we’ve seen also bring.
Most high quality laptop computers have built-in microphones that will do the job of sending one’s voice through a Skype call, and $150 will buy any number of desktop speakers that can rival the C100S in sound quality.