What is a video bar and how to choose one

A group of people in a video conference meeting.
(Image credit: Future)

It’s no secret that the pandemic has changed the workplace, but with more and more of us working from home how striking the perfect balance of human interaction when we need it most can be tough, and connecting with those furthest away should be our top priority.

As organizations begin to see the world of video conferencing in a new light, we investigate how choosing the right video bar can help supplement and even boost those crucial interactions.

What is a video bar?

Much like a soundbar found in many high-end home audio systems, a video bar is a long rectangular device with built-in speakers. A video bar differs by incorporating a microphone and camera into its housing - a particularly appealing prospect for those after an all-in-one device to plug into the big screen. Most models are similar to a webcam in that they require a computer to connect to, but look carefully and you will be able to find video bars that run their own operating system, eliminating the need for a computer. In this case, it’s important to check that the video bar in question can connect directly to the video conferencing suite you use.

Most video bars are best suited to small and medium meeting rooms - perfect for around 10 people. The best systems give you the choice of where to place them; while a wall-mounted video bar provides the slickest experience, it’s possible to sit some models on a stand on a table which is perfect if you regularly use different meeting rooms.

Can you see me? 

As with any filming tool, one of the most fundamental considerations is its quality. The best video bars will film at 4K, but remember that a video conferencing system is only as good as its worst component. It’s worth checking that your computer and your recipient’s monitor can support 4K, for example.

For the ultimate experience, look for models that support artificial intelligence features like human detection. A tool like this will allow the camera to follow a presenter around a room, for example, or to better focus on participants at the back of the room if there is nobody sitting in the front.

A video bar will benefit, then, from what’s known as PTZ - pan-tilt-zoom. Whether it does this digitally or optically should be a consideration for you, as some models have integrated optical zoom lenses that mean less of a sacrifice in the video quality. You may also want to consider the camera’s field of view. Some models feature multiple cameras - telephoto and wide-angle, for example - and being able to switch between these seamlessly should be a talking point when purchasing a video bar.

Say that again 

It’s easy to focus on the camera when making a purchase like this, but the microphone is just as important, if not more so. Being able to hear the other speakers is great, but that’s no good if they can’t hear you.

Consider beamforming microphones for large groups, helping to cut through the noise. Bigger is not always better, though: a microphone with a 10-metre range might seem better than a microphone with a six-meter range on paper, but if you intend to hold your meetings in a small room that measures seven meters to the back, a setup capable of 10 meters may pick up unwanted noise.

For this, consider technology like active sound cancellation - some video bars claim to be able to block out ambient noises focusing purely on those who are speaking. Many of these systems take a while to calibrate, so don’t expect tip-top performance from the get-go.

When it comes to the audio setup inside, you’ll be unlikely to see a simplex system. This allows audio to travel in one direction - no good for a collaborative meeting. A duplex system works two ways, but be sure to consider whether it is a half duplex system - allowing two-directional audio one at a time like a walkie talkie - or full duplex - which is closest to a real-world setting with voices from multiple sources overlapped. If you’re plugging your video bar into a computer, be sure that it can handle full duplex audio.

Consider the size of the meetings you’re likely to host or attend. Consider, too, the layout of the room. While incredible technological advancements have meant that a single microphone can hone in on the correct speaker, sometimes you cannot beat having multiple microphones placed around the room. Make sure that any video bar you’re considering can support additional microphones if this is likely to be important to you.

Lost connection 

When buying a video bar, you should come armed with data about how you intend to use it. Mounting a video bar on the wall beneath or above a monitor provides the slickest and cleanest experience. If you intend to take part in calls with multiple teams, you’ll want a system that can handle multiple displays. Not so much of a problem with video bars that work in conjunction with your computer, but some all-in-one systems that run their own OS may only be compatible with a single display.

Checking the connections is a good idea, both on the video bar and your existing hardware. Some models connect by USB and others by HDMI. Wireless connections like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi may also be available, but it’s no good having a Wi-Fi only model if you’re only able to connect to the Internet in your workplace by Ethernet.

Other minor niggles 

If all of your tech infrastructure has been provided by one company, maybe it makes sense to stay loyal to that brand. Products are designed to complement each other, and often users will find that a single-branded setup proves more efficient. 

Finally, it’s a good idea to be mindful of the company’s customer service and its availability of spare parts. The current post-pandemic climate means a shortage of certain components and delays in transit, so if something were to go wrong you’d want to know that the company can have it fixed in no time.

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With several years’ experience freelancing in tech and automotive circles, Craig’s specific interests lie in technology that is designed to better our lives, including AI and ML, productivity aids, and smart fitness. He is also passionate about cars and the decarbonisation of personal transportation. As an avid bargain-hunter, you can be sure that any deal Craig finds is top value!