Video chat – what works and what doesn’t

I went to Asia for two weeks on business recently. It was easily the longest period of time I ever spent away from my wife Rachel since we were married back in 1997. And the trip took place when she was well into her seventh month of our first pregnancy. Oh, and she hates talking on the phone.

I knew it would be a long two weeks.

But it was also the perfect excuse to revisit a couple of technologies I’d pretty much ignored over the past few years: Webcams and video chat applications. I’d played with some of the early stuff years ago, but grainy images, poor audio, and hard-to-use software always made the setups seem like more trouble than they were worth.

However, I figured several video chats would make the long trip a bit more bearable. Plus, with Mainelli version 2.0 soon to launch, I hoped to figure out a way for my parents back in the Midwest to hear and see their grandson.

Camera evolution

Step one for any video chatting scenario is setting up cameras for both parties. I opted for two new Logitech products: the QuickCam Ultra Vision SE (US$130) for the desktop at home, and the QuickCam Deluxe for Notebooks ($60) for the Dell Latitude D620 laptop I was taking to Asia.

Logitech makes clear in its instructions that, before you plug in either USB-based camera, you must install the software. During installation the software checks for updates online; after you download the latest version of the app, the install process takes just a few minutes. The software clearly specifies when it is time to plug in the camera.

It then walks you through the process of setting up the video and audio.

Compared to the average orb-shaped desktop Webcams of the past, the QuickCam Ultra Vision is one slick-looking peripheral. It rests on top of your monitor (whether LCD or CRT), and its flexible hook insures that it will stay put. The unit has a 1.3-megapixel sensor, a rotating glass lens, and an integrated microphone.

The QuickCam Ultra Vision produces an impressive image. The unit’s RightLight 2 technology automatically deals with low or uneven light, and even with daylight shining from a window behind me, the video image was clear and bright.

Logitech’s software also offers a long list of features that let you fine-tune the camera’s settings, add special effects, and even pull a privacy shade should you decide you’re not ready for your close-up.

For me, one of its most interesting features was the face-tracking capability — once enabled, it constantly zooms and pans the camera to keep your face in the center of the frame. It makes for a very cool, if occasionally unsettling, experience.

Not surprisingly, the image produced by the notably smaller (and less expensive) QuickCam Deluxe wasn’t quite as nice as that from the QuickCam Ultra Vision. The unit also includes a glass lens, but it achieves its 1.3-megapixel video images through interpolation, and it uses older, first-generation RightLight technology for low light.

The resulting image, while still impressive, was slightly more washed out. The unit’s small size, firmly gripping hook, and mesh-padded carrying case should make it an unobtrusive travel companion.

Skype me

One thing I instantly liked about the Logitech Webcam software was its links to downloads for the AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, and Skype chat clients. There’s also a link to Logitech’s own VideoCall software, which connects to the company’s fee-based service.

My first choice was to go the Skype route. I know people who use and love the service, and when I tried it out some time ago, I found it fairly reliable. So I downloaded the app to both computers and set up an account for my wife.

Configuring the user-friendly program to work with a video camera proved exceedingly easy, and within minutes we were ready for our first test run. I set Rachel up in the bedroom with my Dell notebook, and then stayed in the office with the desktop. (I realized I’d be using the notebook on my trip, but at the time of this test, she was already parked in bed.)

Our first try wasn’t pretty. We connected and established both audio and video, and it worked — for a few minutes. The image looked pretty good, overall, but the audio and video quickly — and very noticeably — lost sync.

I found that I could get up, walk into the other room, and then view myself doing these actions on the other PC. That’s a pretty significant lag, and both Rachel and I found it more than a little distracting. We encountered the same problem during subsequent test calls.

Logitech’s VideoCall

Hoping for a better experience, I then opted to download and try Logitech’s software. After a 30-day trial, you and the person you want to chat with must both pay for the service; rates are $7 a month, $35 for six months, or $65 for 12 months.

Setup was quick and easy, and within minutes I had the app running on both machines. It was clear from the start that the Logitech service did a better job of making sure the audio and video remained synced. True, the VideoCall video was noticeably grainier than the Skype video (I’m not sure if the Logitech service simply downgraded the resolution to accommodate sluggish Internet speeds). But overall, this flaw seemed a better compromise than sticking with the problems we encountered on Skype.

We enjoyed several minutes of real-time (if slightly pixilated) chatting, when suddenly the Logitech software on the desktop encountered an error that forced me to close the application. Fortunately, after a reboot we were able to conduct several more video chats without significant problems. VideoCall worked well enough, but I can’t imagine actually paying for the service.

Microsoft gets it right

For our third and final video chat attempt, I downloaded and installed Microsoft’s latest Windows Live Messenger client. Once you navigate through the installation process (which forces you to decline about a half dozen additional options), Windows Live Messenger works like any other chat client.

Figuring out how to initiate a video call took a few minutes as I worked my way through the controls, but I soon established a video call with my wife on the other PC.

And it looked pretty darn good. I didn’t care for the “video call sponsored by” advertisement that appeared before the call began, but it’s hard to complain about such promotions with a free service. The video stayed synced during numerous test calls, and overall the image looked better than it did in the other apps.

Audio seemed a little fainter, but that was easily remedied by turning up the volume.

Better than no video chat

In the end, we stuck with Windows Live Messenger for all of our chats, and it worked almost flawlessly every time. It also made our two weeks apart decidedly more bearable.

But one thing’s clear: While the cameras and applications have certainly improved since the last time I used them a few years ago, video chat technology still isn’t as easy to use as I’d like it to be. Until it is, I may have to wait until my next trip home to set up my parents with a Webcam.