After conducting extensive research and analysis of video conference services, we recommend Skype for Business as the best inexpensive video conference service.
Why Skype for Business?
Most video conference services require you to make the choice between paying higher prices to get more robust features or forgoing them for a cheaper price. Skype for Business, however, is an affordable and effective tool that retains its most valuable assets. You'll spend less each month on this service than for most others, but you won't have to sacrifice reliability, high-definition video feeds or the most essential features of video conferencing software. Moreover, the large conference rooms and ability to stream multiple video feeds at once make Skype for Business a good tool for hosting many participants in a single meeting.
In September 2017, Microsoft announced that it will replace Skype for Business with Microsoft Teams, though it has not given a timeline for the transition at this time. Microsoft Teams will allow users to make calls, hold meetings and collaborate with others from a single place.
The No. 1 highlight of Skype for Business is its affordable cost. There are two packages that include Skype for Business (along with other Microsoft Office software), so it's important to know what you really need before you buy. However, if you don't already own a license to use Microsoft Office applications, this could be a cost-effective way to bundle those services. Up to 250 participants can be included in a Skype for Business conference under either of these plans. Skype for Business also offers a 30-day free trial.
Microsoft Office Business Essentials:
- $5 per user, per month
- Includes group IM, audio and video calling
- Web-only access to Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint
- 1TB of data storage
Microsoft Office 365 Business Premium:
- $12.50 per user, per month
- Includes group HD video, desktop and app sharing, and meeting recording
- Allows scheduling via Outlook, remote desktop control and pre-meeting lobby
- Access to all Microsoft Office applications
Skype for Business is also included in some of the Microsoft Office 365 enterprise plans, but the video conferencing application is not the primary focus of those offerings. You can take a look at the more comprehensive packages here.
Skype for Business has a variety of uses beyond video conferencing. When you purchase Skype for Business primarily as a video conference tool, you also get a text chat platform, the ability to make audio calls, and a way to send files quickly and easily (even without setting up a video meeting). Here are some of the features it includes:
- App integration: Skype for Business gives you complete integration with Microsoft Office applications to help users upload and share documents easily. A major benefit of Skype for Business is its seamless integration with other Microsoft products. Beyond Microsoft products, Skype for Business can integrate with iOS, Android and macOS applications.
- Audio calling: Skype for Business allows audio calls in addition to video conferences, so if you need to speak with somebody but it doesn't quite warrant a meeting, you can give them a ring instead.
- Chat application: The most passive function of Skype for Business is its use as a chat client. A small window on your desktop allows you to see who is currently online, away or in do-not-disturb mode, as well as organize colleagues into groups for quick reference. From this window, you can invite participants to a video conference or just send them a quick note or some documents.
- Easy-to-use interface: Many people are already familiar with Skype, so although the video conferencing platform might require a bit of a learning curve, the layout and interface are generally recognizable to a lot of people. Those who have used Skype won't have to make a dramatic adjustment, as Skype for Business' interface was designed to mimic the consumer-facing Skype.
- Lobby: When up to 250 people are invited to a meeting, it's likely that some will beat the presenter to the meeting. If participants sign in before the meeting is launched, they're directed to a virtual lobby to wait. When the presenter signs in, he or she can review who's queued up in the lobby prior to launching the meeting.
- Ability to manage participants: The administrator can mute, remove or control participants' access to features. If a participant's mic is making a lot of background noise, for example, the presenter can mute it easily. Users also can turn off video feeds or invite additional participants as the meeting is going on.
- Meeting notes: If you'd like to take notes for future reference during a video conference, you can use Skype for Business' built-in note-taking application that allows you to share time-stamped notes with your fellow participants and other members of your organization who were not on the call.
- Meeting recordings: Audio and video recordings are available so you can keep archived meetings for future reference or employee training materials.
- Polls and surveys: Users can create polls to solicit feedback from other participants. Whether you're testing the waters on a new idea or getting your team's opinion on an ongoing project, polls and surveys are essential to breaking down the sentiment and determining what your colleagues are thinking.
- Scheduling: Like our other best picks, Skype for Business allows you to schedule meetings ahead of time on Outlook or the native web scheduler, as well as send out meeting details, such as the link or dial-in information, to participants. If you'd like to start a meeting immediately, Skype for Business also includes a "meet now" option.
- Screen sharing: One of the most important features of video conferencing is the ability to broadcast your screen to other participants. Unlike the consumer version of Skype, Skype for Business supports screen sharing. Users can share virtually anything, whether it's their entire screen or just a specific window.
- Whiteboards: Whiteboards are used as a collaborative tool and can be marked up by any user to communicate ideas or list information in a manner other participants can easily digest.
Support for Skype for Business was satisfactory in our experience. While there isn't a direct sales support line for Skype for Business, calling Microsoft led us to a customer service rep who was relatively knowledgeable and happy to help us resolve our questions. There were a few instances where we encountered wait times, but they weren't long enough for us to give up. Moreover, Microsoft offers plenty of help documents and tutorials on how to use the system. We never felt as if we'd run into an obstacle with Skype for Business that could not be overcome with relatively little effort.
No dial-in audio: The most notable drawback is that Skype for Business lacks a dial-in feature for meetings. Despite this shortcoming, if your primary interest is using Skype for Business as a video conference platform simply to host meetings and presentations, it shouldn't be a huge problem if your team has access to a laptop or mobile device.
Learning curve: Skype for Business isn't particularly difficult to use, but it's not necessarily intuitive either. It takes some clicking around, especially given its other functions beyond video conferencing. It might take some time to familiarize yourself and your team with the service. Still, this minor learning curve doesn't impact the overall quality of the service. Also, for users already familiar with Skype, the barriers are significantly reduced.
We chose Skype for Business from a pool of dozens of video conference services. To learn more about our full methodology and for a more comprehensive list of video conference services, visit our best picks page here.
Ready to choose a video conference service? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage:
- Best Video Conference Services 2018
- Choosing a Video Conference Service: A Buyer's Guide
- Best Overall Video Conference Service for Business
- Best Video Conference Service for Many Participants
- Best Cloud-Based Video and Phone Conferencing Collaboration Tools
Additional reporting by Adam C. Uzialko.