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Cisco Webex Business Review 2021

Cisco Webex Business has seen a considerable revamping since the last time we tested it, particularly on ease of use. But it also remains one of the more expensive video conferencing solutions we tested. Pricing aside, however, the combination of enterprise integration and security with a newly simplified front-end is a nice match. Cisco also intends to keep expanding its offering, with spokespersons showing us the Webex Assistant, an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered meeting assistant that will take care of administrative tasks, like meeting transcription. However, while we saw that software in action during a demo, we couldn’t perform a hands-on evaluation as Cisco says the Webex Assistant will only be available later in 2021 with pricing information to be announced then, too.

Even without the Assistant, however, Webex remains a very full-featured platform with integration and security features aimed squarely at mid-sized to large businesses and enterprises. While it’s more expensive than some of its competition, the new interface’s simplicity coupled with back-end muscle is enough to allow Webex to retain its Editors’ Choice designation, along with competitors, Intermedia AnyMeeting and Zoom Meetings.

Pricing and Getting Started with Cisco Webex

For our testing, we used the Webex Business tier, which starts at $26.95 per host per month; however Cisco has other tiers as well. To start, there is a free tier, likely to help Cisco compete with Zoom’s installed base of consumer customers that’s grown hugely since the start of the pandemic. Cisco’s free plan is decently featured, though it’s limited to a single host, 50 minutes of meeting time, and a maximum of 100 meeting participants. That may sound like small numbers until you look at other free plans, like Intermedia’s, which limit you to four meeting attendees total. In other words, Intermedia’s free plan will let you chat with your parents, Cisco’s will let you host a virtual family reunion.

Next is the Starter level, which will run you $13.50 per host per month. This tier can handle between one and 50 hosts, its meetings can last up to 24 hours with up to 150 meeting participants, and also includes 5GB of cloud storage space for recorded meetings. The Business tier, which is the tier we evaluated, is Cisco’s most popular small to midsized business (SMB) tier, though with an emphasis on midsized. This tier ups the maximum host count to 100. The meeting duration remains 24 hours, but the number of attendees rises to 200, and customers have up to 10GB of included cloud storage for recorded video sessions.

Finally, there’s an Enterprise tier, which handles an unlimited number of hosts, a whopping 100,000 meeting attendees (good for virtual trade shows, apparently), and an unlimited amount of cloud storage for recorded video. Cisco didn’t provide us with pricing for the Enterprise tier as any sales here require a direct discussion with Cisco sales reps.

Cisco also sells intelligent meeting rooms, and both the Business and Enterprise tiers are tightly integrated with this solution. However, due to the pandemic forcing so many customers into remote work scenarios, most SMBs will probably continue to use Webex as a stand-alone video conferencing platform, so it’s good the company is advancing its capabilities there in addition to selling smart conference room technology.

Desktop clients are available for both Apple macOS and Microsoft Windows, though the browser client works just as well and with no loss of feature functionality. Mobile Webex users will find dedicated apps for both Apple iOS and Google Android. Finally, if you’re looking to evaluate it, there is a free, 30-day trial (separate from the Free tier) available via Cisco’s website.

Web Meetings With a Clean and Organized Interface

Signing up for an account is the standard process of inputting your organization’s identifying information and providing a payment method. Once signed up, starting a new meeting is also straightforward. You can immediately start a meeting from the home screen, or you can schedule one for later. Typical items, such as the meeting password, an agenda, an attendee list, and similar information are all made obvious at this point and easily entered. If you’re interested in hosting larger meetings, it’s a good idea to download Cisco Webex Productivity Tools, which will become available on the download screen once you’ve set up a paid account. These tools help your invitation and agenda process for big meetings, since they integrate with Microsoft Office, including Outlook and Teams.

Once in a meeting, Webex keeps a clean interface. Along the bottom you have the standard controls to mute and unmute your microphone as well as starting and stopping your video. Next to that, you have a button to share the screen. The sub-menu lets you choose an entire screen (if you are using multiple monitors) or a specific application if you need to maintain a level of privacy. In addition, you can easily play a multimedia file or share a document if needed.

Perhaps one of the best options we tested was the ability to share an Apple iPad screen. Given the popularity of the Apple Pencil and its clones, this is a way for SMBs to easily create illustrations or brainstorm, especially since so many newly home-bound workers probably have an iPad or two lying around. If you prefer to use Webex’s built-in whiteboard functionality, not only is this still available, it’s got updated drawing and annotation tools, too. These are not only capable, they’re easy enough to use that you won’t need to spend much time learning how.

Webex Business can also record your video call. There’s an easily-found record button. Hit that, and once you end the recording the software will churn for a bit, and then you’ll get an email letting you know that your recording will be ready in 24 hours, though we found that it rarely takes that long. However, remember that longer video calls can take up quite a bit of disk space, so if you’re limited to 10GB, as you are with the Business tier we tested, be sure to move those files to a local storage resource regularly to avoid running out of cloud storage space.

Cisco Webex Business automatic gesture recognition screen shot

Webex Introduces Emojis Through Gestures

Cisco has added an emoji button, too. While we don’t consider emojis essential to a good video conference, they’re still both fun and useful to express emotion or reaction in larger meetings where a single presenter needs to be doing most of the work. However, you’ll find support for them now in most video conferencing apps, so this isn’t unique. Something you won’t find in much of the competition, however, is the ability to display emojis based on your hand gestures.

We tried a few, including thumbs up, thumbs down, and clap. Webex readily picked these up using its recognizer and the correct emojis flashed on the screen. On the other hand, by happenstance, we were eating a snack while testing the software, and the recognizer kept mistaking the sound of us eating crackers as clapping. Nothing is perfect.

Administrative meeting options are handled via a single button that opens to offer several such features. The first is to lock the meeting. In an era of Zoom bombings, this has become a must-have. It also prevents late joiners from jumping in and causing a ruckus. Next down is an invite-and-remind feature that lets you remind someone if they forgot to join or just simply can’t find the link. Below that is an ancillary option to just copy the link to your clipboard and send it to them by another means, like a Slack message.

On the right hand side of the screen, you get the standard fanfare of in-meeting controls. You can mute and unmute individual participants or all, as well as raise your hand or see if another user has raised their hand for a question. This is a far more critical feature when the meeting is largely a presentation or webinar and everyone else stays muted for the duration. While LogMeIn GoToMeeting and several others also have this feature, it’s not as ubiquitous as it used to be.  An extra options button is also available on this panel to enable automatic muting of new participants to avoid interrupting ongoing talks. You can also enable or disable the ability for participants to mute themselves.

Conferencing With Breakout Sessions

Another feature Webex offers that we didn’t see in many competitors is the ability to have breakout sessions. These can be manually assigned or chosen by individual participants. Having this ability helps with multi-team meetings, training sessions, or webinars. You start with an all-up video session, and then break up the audience into smaller teams, each able to discuss more detailed topics in different virtual rooms. Once those talks are over, everyone can “reconvene” in the central session room.

Cisco Webex Business chat feature screen shot

While we liked the breakout capability, Webex didn’t do quite as well when it came to implementing chat. Yes, users will find an expandable chat panel that allows quick chat messages between participants, though that’s something you’ll find in the vast majority of competitors. You can broadcast these chats to everyone or aim them at a specific user. The disappointment here was that the chat window doesn’t support rich text, which meant that, again, it didn’t have quite the same level of functionality as some competitors, notably Intermedia. It’s not a critical failing, but seeing individual advancements, like gesture emojis and breakout sessions, had us expecting this ability, so we were disappointed when it wasn’t there.

You also won’t find much formatting capability in the Webex notes callout. This seems meant more for quick notes, so there probably aren’t a lot of formatting tools by design, though some competitors do have them. Meeting administrators who want to distribute notes after the session will want to clean these up in another app before emailing them to participants.

Cisco Webex Business advanced sharing and whiteboarding screen shot

Cisco Webex Promising Upcoming Enhancements

Overall, Cisco has delivered an excellent video call and meeting client with lots of back-end power and several features that make it stand out from the pack. Not the least of these is the promised, voice-activated Webex Assistant. Again, this will be an AI-powered add-on module that should be able to handle things like note taking, transcription, and other rote meeting management tasks. But while we saw it demonstrated, we couldn’t test it as it won’t be available until later in 2021, along with its pricing information.

However, the Assistant also touches on Cisco Webex Business’ main downside: its price. While the Assistant will definitely add significant value, we would have preferred it to be included as part of the basic Webex Business tier instead of being offered as an extra cost add-on, as Cisco is currently describing. By contrast, much lower priced Intermedia AnyMeeting and GoToMeeting have a similar feature that’s baked right in. Webex Business’ 10GB limit on cloud storage is also an annoyance when several competitors offer more space or even unlimited space without a significant uptick in cost.

However, those are minor dings. Webex Business is a fine product and definitely worthy of your attention. Its back-end muscle and focus on not just remote work but also central office culture means it’ll be just as useful when you transition back to the office as it is now for home workers. While it’s expensive, all those features and a really intuitive interface make it an easy nod for our Editors’ Choice designation.

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