Videophoning From an Unexpected Source

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 12, 2006

We don't have jet packs, flying cars or food pills, but the videophone has finally come home -- no thanks to the phone company.

Instead, it comes from a little eBay subsidiary called Skype, an online service that provides Internet video communication, as well as Internet phone service and instant messenger style-chat.

While most of the major instant-messaging services allow online video chats, none of them does it quite as well as Skype.

Skype's software is a free download; add a Web camera and a reasonably fast broadband connection, and you can make video calls for free to any other Skype user.

You won't be looking at anything close to high-definition video: Skype video is closer to the grainy, blurry, slo-mo "tank cam" footage that chronicled the opening of the war in Iraq on television. But these video chats are good enough for most everyday uses, like giving far-flung friends a walking tour of your new home or letting a grandparent wave hello to a new grandkid.

Skype's advantages over its competitors lie in compatibility, reliability and simplicity.

The company offers software for both Macs and PCs, an important consideration given how most of Apple's computers now include built-in webcams. It also provides Linux and Windows Mobile versions, but those are voice- and text-only, without video support.

Both the Windows and Mac releases recognized the webcams on a couple of test laptops right away, then allowed video-conferencing between the two without further tweaking. By comparison, Yahoo and AOL's instant-messaging software didn't even detect those cameras (though a beta version of the upcoming AIM 6.0 did), while Microsoft's Live Messenger failed to sustain more than momentary video chats.

And Skype, unlike those other IM programs, doesn't treat your computer's screen as a blank billboard that it must fill. It's a quick download -- Win 2000 or newer or Mac OS X 10.3 or newer at -- and install. Once up and running, you don't have to stare past blinking banner ads or pop-up Web pages.

All you see is a simple window listing the people in your address book, plus a separate one for the current call or videoconference. Like other video-chat software, Skype's video window will display a thumbnail view of what your own camera sees (lest you be tempted to pick your nose on camera); you can also enlarge the video window to full-screen mode.

In a week of tests, I ran into few drop-outs. My biggest problem was the audio setup on each computer.

For example, I heard a distracting echo when I used the built-in microphones on an HP laptop. Plugging in a headset fixed that -- although I still heard my own words playing back a moment after I said them, a constant distraction during that one call. A MacBook laptop didn't exhibit that glitch.

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