Ever since I first was introduced to the Smartdock during Microsoft Ignite last year I have been anxious to get my hands on one. Our company has been heavy on collaboration since Live Communications Server 2005, mostly with desktop users using audio and screen sharing. Lately the use of video enabled meeting rooms have been asked for, and for someone that thinks traditional Skype Room Systems are too expensive (at least for company wide implementation) the Logitech solution looks really promising.
This week the Smartdock finally arrived, and here are my initial thoughts on it.
The concept of the Smartdock solution is actually something I have been close to setting up myself – I even have a draft for a “DYI Lync Room System” blog post lying around! A couple of years ago I did set up a Surface Pro 2 as a “team room Lync System” where I would utilize the Lync modern UI app to achieve most of the Skype Meeting Room experience, further customizing the Start Screen so it would only have a tile for joining booked meetings and another for starting a new one yourself. The problem was that users could easily screw things up by messing around with the computer, even viewing the desktop would throw some users off. The idea was reluctantly abandoned.
The Logitech Smartdock takes this concept a few steps further. First of all it locks down the computer so that the only way to end the Skype Room System app is by restarting the computer. Second, it contains an HDMI “capture device” that will let you connect the sharing computer via HDMI cable. Since you will most likely bring your own computer to share meeting content I personally find presenting the content directly (via Skype) to be just as easy. With the Smartdock, however, the advantage is that the presenter does not even need to have Skype for Business installed on his or her computer.
The Smartdock ships in a compact box along with a power supply, a 10 feet network cable and two 10 feet HDMI cables. At the moment it only supports one external monitor but it is announced that dual monitor support is coming. So for now you have all the cables for both HDMI input as well as output. The Smartdock even ships with a small torx screwdriver needed for the Surface and cable attachment within the dock! For hired consultants setting this up at a customer site it is nice to know that you can actually leave your tool kit at home.
Apart from the Smartdock you will need a Surface Pro 4. It has to be a Core i5 CPU version, and sadly you will have to install Windows 10 Enterprise instead of just being able to use the preinstalled Windows 10 Pro that ships with the Surface. The latter can be a pain, because PXE booting a Surface Pro 4 turned out such big a problem I had to go on using USB bootable media instead. Microsoft has a guide for creating a USB media including drivers and the Skype Room System application package. The installation is kind of clever, as it takes you through the whole part of installing the OS and application, sysprepping the computer as well as the following “perks”:
- Creates an administrator account and a separate console account named “Skype”
- Locks down the “Skype” user account so that all interaction besides what you do with the SRS application is disabled
- Installs maintainance task that will automatically update the SRS
- Adjusts power settings so that the Surface will never shut down, but it will turn the touch screen dark after some time. Along with the proximity sensor in the docking that “wake up” the screen when you get close to it that is kind of a cool feature. This will even make the HDMI output turn off and on, so if you (like me) are having the meeting room screen/projector automatically turn off and on based on source input it will work fine with the Smartdock!
- Sets the Smartdock to automatically sign in with the “Skype” user account as well as start the Skype Room System app automatically.
Make sure that you just leave the sysprep autounattend file as it is instead of changing it into what the Technet article says, that is: instead of making it into “silent.xml” just stick with the default “audit.xml” config file. Otherwise the SRS app and several other settings will not be installed.
After the installation is complete you can “dock the Surface”, power it on, provide the login credentials for your Skype Room System account and enjoy the fun. Of course, I am assuming that you have provided the SRS account in advance, but that is well explained here. In my case I have been reusing an existing Exchange room resource account already used with an Evoko Room panel for meeting room booking – and they both seem to play along nicely.
Remember that if you decide not to domain join your newly born Skype room you will require a root certificate trusting the certificates assigned to the Skype server, or else you will not be able to log in. This is well described in the Technet article along with a tip on how to make it happen during initial setup.
One thing I was anxious about was whether the Skype Room System app would be conforming to the locale used on the Surface. Of course I would prefer that the user interface would be in my (users) local language, for maximum ease-of-use. Luckily this is the case. When I set up a Crestron RL system I seem to recall that it was all in English, but that was years ago and may have changed – or may even be false.
Another thing to notice is that the Smartdock, even though it is running a fully functional Surface Pro 4 inside, will require an Ethernet connection for the Skype Room app to work. For some this might sound like a downside, but for me assuring that Skype media will run on the best network available is nothing but the right thing to do. Also, remember that to take full advantage of the HDMI input device you will have to change into the administrator account and adjust audio device settings
The thing I love most about the Smartdock is that you can connect whatever kind of USB audio and video solution you like. I have been testing it with the Logitech GROUP system, a solution we have deployed to several meeting rooms already and one that I really find giving you bang for the buck. So with a Smartdock (MSRP $599), a Surface Pro 4 (about $1,000) and the Logitech GROUP (MSRP $999) you have your Skype Room system going for less than $2,600! That is way off any other Skype Room System out there, at least to my knowledge.
If you want to go with other vendors that is possible too, for example; if you have a really large meeting room you could use Vaddio EasyUSB ceiling mounted microphones and the Altia PanaCast 2 panoramic camera for full sonic and visual coverage – That is flexibility to me!
The Smartdock is operated the same way as the other Skype Room systems on the market. On the touch screen you have the choices of starting your own ad-hoc meeting or simply presenting an HDMI connected computer screen if the meeting is only for people physically present. There is also the “Invite this room” choice which will simply give you the instrictions on how to invite the room into a conference call. If you have already created a meeting up front which the Skype Meeting Room was invited into then the click-to-join button is readily available.
During a Skype conference call theres is a layout control button. This gives you the choice to view only the content, only the video gallery or content view with a compact sidebar of video gallery attendants. All in all this is everything you would expect from a Skype Room System, and it both looks and runs real smooth. If you enable the Skype Meeting Room account for voice it will let you use it as a phone as well, and with Skype for Business server the voice policy applied will always be that of the Meeting Room instead of the meeting organizer.
Last, but not least, one thing I am awaiting with some anxiety is how the system will handle upcoming Windows updates. Back at Ignite the Logitech representative gave some promises that the Skype Room software would automatically handle this, and – at least how I interpreted it – would make sure that only Logitech “certified” updates (meaning tested and proven) would be applied. As I have already mentioned there is a “maintainance task” that will take care of updates, but I seem to recall that the anniversary update for Windows 10 actually broke some Logitech webcams, and that is something I would rather not experience.
Summing up I have the following pros for Logitech’s Smartdock:
- Reasonably priced – a basic solution including camera and microphone is available for under $2,600
- Quite easy to set up, you will only need to create the install media once, and from there the installation is straight forward.
- Flexibility to use your preferred or needed camera and/or microphone solution, as well as your existing or preferred screen or projector.
- The same great and easy user interface of the much more expensive Skype Room systems already on the market.
- Uses Ethernet network connection only – which is preferrable.
Now, there are also some points to take into consideration, maybe even considered cons:
- The Surface Pro 4 will need to be provisioned via PXE boot or USB media. The first I was unable to get working, the latter can be cumbersome if you plan to deploy many of them.
- How will the system handle updates?
All in all I have to say that Logitech are onto something here. I already have their meeting room solutions for audio and video set up in several facilities, and they are delivering good quality at a reasonable cost. The Smartdock looks much like the same story!