Tushar BurmanSep 23, 2021 16:24:48 IST
I remember back in March 2020, when lockdown was first imposed, I was left with no computer. My office laptop remained in the office, and I had an iPad at hand, which became my default computer and video calling device. That, and several phones, which could run the fast-growing bushel of videoconferencing apps. This was all right at the time, but one quickly learns that phones and tablets aren’t the best ways to virtually meet clients, colleagues and co-workers. Poly – an amalgamation of erstwhile Polycom and Plantronics – is doubling down on its traditional video-conferencing solutions and bringing more tailored kits to the WFH crowd. We’ve been using one of them: the Poly P5 Studio kit.
The kit: An impressive Bluetooth headset and webcam
Let’s face it, the memes are true. You’re rarely at a Zoom call with the camera on, shirt buttoned, and home office door closed. You’re more likely to have the camera off, the microwave going and the kettle bubbling over with the tea you forgot on the stovetop. The Poly P5 Studio kit we tested came with the PLT (erstwhile Plantronics) 4220 UC Bluetooth headset and the P5 USB webcam. They may be available as separate products, but it’s clear that they’re designed to go well together. For instance, the headset comes with a little dongle of the kind you usually find with wireless computer mice and keyboards. Since you’re going to plug the camera into a free USB-A port anyway, there’s no need to block another for the headset; the back of the camera has a port that neatly houses it and covers it up to make it invisible. It’s a simple, elegant solution that only uses a single port on your computer.
P5 Camera: this is not your mediocre laptop webcam
If I were to pick between bad audio and bad video, I’d pick bad video. Audio clarity is far more important for communication, even if video is available. Thankfully, you don’t have to choose with this camera. The P5 Studio camera is not as advanced as Poly’s other offerings, but it is leagues better than anything you’re likely to have on your Windows laptop. It’s a thoughtfully designed item with a somewhat alien look to it. The clamping system is simple, and stays in place by friction. The clip attaches to the camera via a magnet, and you can simply pull it off to reveal a standard tripod thread for more flexibility. The rubber padding material ensures the camera stays securely on my monitor and is easy to angle towards my face.
Image quality is excellent, especially compared to laptop webcams, and will easily outdo most selfie cameras on phones as well. Resolution and framerate are limited to 1080p/30fps, which is plenty for video calling. There’s much less of that hazy, cheap feel of a typical webcam. Contrast is solid, exposure is okay and the autofocus ensures that your face is crisp and there’s little hunting for focus, except in low light. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the image even with dim room lighting, but it’s best to have something bright around one’s desk to ensure things stay crispy and autofocus doesn’t hunt much – you’re more likely to find this annoying than any image quality issues. I’ve been using the P5 Studio through the Nvidia Broadcast app, which adds background blur and auto-framing to the output by default, and I’ve found the results to be excellent. My colleagues have often remarked about how clean the video looks. I usually use a mirrorless camera with a fast lens as a webcam, but the size, convenience and design of the P5 has made it my new default.
Another bonus, practical feature of the P5 Studio webcam is the privacy window. By default, the lens of the camera is covered. Twist the lens bezel anti-clockwise about 30 degrees and the lens reveals itself. There’s a prominent LED up top that stays bright red when the camera is covered/off, and turns white when uncovered/on. There’s a distinct click in the bezel when the camera reaches the ‘on’ position. Again, this is an elegant, practical solution to ensure your camera is only active when you need it to be.
Voyager 4220 UC headset: practical, professional, but fit may vary
I have a thing for headphones, so I was keen to try out the Voyager 4220 UC that comes with this kit. It also includes a desktop charging stand that connects via USB and keeps the headphones topped-up. These are for professional use, so while they are Bluetooth headphones and can be used with mobile devices to listen to music, the focus is on voice clarity.
There’s a boom microphone on the right earcup that sports dual noise-cancelling microphones for clean transmission. Unscientifically, I heard no complaints from colleagues on conference calls. Understandably, I had better clarity with my podcast microphones, but with far more noise. The boom microphone, while looking awkward on video, is the best possible solution to voice clarity, especially when working from home.
The headset is also ideally suited for Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other popular videoconferencing software. There’s a large, orange button behind the right earcup that acts as a ‘mute’ button in Teams and Zoom, and requires no additional drivers or software; it just works. The boom microphone can also be retracted to a vertical position, which automatically mutes the headset. Neat!
Sound quality is good, and music through the cans is also pleasant, if a bit bass-heavy. The headset earcups are of the “on-ear” type, which means that they rest on your outside ear, and don’t envelop the ears completely like “over-ear” cans do. This is convenient when you need some awareness of your surroundings, but I’ve found the headset uncomfortable to use. Not in the way that it causes pain or hotspots, but rather that it is very insecure on my head. It feels like the mildest movement may dislodge the headset from my head and onto the ground. It hasn’t happened yet, but it has with other on-ear headsets I’ve used. Ergonomically as well, the 4220 UC is a bit off. The curvature of the headband and design of the earcups is such that the cups to sit flush to my ear, but angle away from the top. And for whatever reason, the right ear pad articulates more than the left, so it’s more comfortable on the right.
Perhaps the best-designed part of the headset is the docking station. The right earcup of the headset has a groove that slots cleanly into the docking station and keeps the device battery topped-up. There’s a multi-colour LED on the dock to indicate what state of charge the headset is at. The dock has reasonable heft to stay in place and the headset is easy to get on and off.
Verdict: Thoughtful, but pricey
The Poly P5 Studio kit is a functional, practical package that certainly brings a level of professionalism to your online communication. Avoiding typical household background noises and ensuring that the visual is at least acceptable, goes some way in behaving considerately. Certainly, for me, I find it a bit lazy when someone shows up to a Zoom call looking unkempt, or in a dungeon with a biscuit tin on their heads. Or all three. The P5 Studio kit avoids these pitfalls, but at a price: Rs 24,600. That’s a lot of money for a Bluetooth headset and webcam, so you really need to care about your voice and appearance to swipe the card. For me, I’d get a basic desktop USB mic, skip the headset and spring for the webcam. There are precious few units on the market with a focus on image quality, and this one does well for the price.