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More than just talk

With the introduction of its iChat AV software and iSight Web camera, Apple Computer Inc. has applied its characteristic magic touch to the realm of videochat. And though it may not be perfect, Apple's incarnation of video overthe Internet makes most of the competition look crude.

Announced at the Worldwide Developers Conference in June as part ofCEOSteve Jobs keynote address that included the Power Mac G5, iChat AV andiSight were among the few products demonstrated that are already available.

Mac users can download the iChat AV "public beta," or unfinishedtest version, from Apple for free for now. The finished version will beincluded later this year with the release of Mac OS X 10.3, dubbed "Panther." The standalone product will cost $29.95.

Generally speaking, iChat's quality is remarkable. A variety of factors,such as the speed of each user's Mac and general Internet congestion, cancause some breakup of audio and choppiness of video. Still, its video iscrisp and smooth and audio much clearer than that of other video chatsoftware.

At the same time, competing video chat software retains some advantages overiChat, such as the built-in ability to find users not on your "buddy list"who happen to be online.

As with earlier versions of iChat, Mac users still can plug in an AOLInstant Messenger screen name or, if they have one, a .Mac account name andaccess the AIM network. However, you are limited to text-based instantmessaging with users lacking iChat and a high-speed Internet connection.

Because no one else has yet adopted the same open standards Apple is using,iChat's video and audio features are Mac-to-Mac only. Apple says it hopesothers eventually will adopt the standards, which would permit iChat usersto connect to far more people, particularly the millions in the AIMnetwork.

Only time will tell if that comes to pass, but the historic refusal of thebig IM players like MSN and AOL to make their networks compatible makes thepossibility a slim one.

Another limitation of iChat not shared by most other video chat software isa built-in means to find people online apart from those in your buddy list.For many "early adopters" eager to test Apple's new gear, findingfellowiChat users became their biggest challenge.

Not willing to accept defeat, some intrepid Mac users solved the problemthemselves by creating their own Web sites where iChat AV users could posttheir screen names.

The largest such site, myisight.com, had more than 1,600 members as of Tuesday.Each member enters not only a screen name, but also a few snippets of basicbiographical data, such as age, gender and geographical location. A searchengine helps members find others with similar interests.

Once you've added some audio- and video-enabled names to your iChat buddylist, you'll notice some new icons that indicate each user'scapabilities:audio, video or just old-fashioned IM. Clicking on the video or audioiconsinitiates a "call" the recipient can either accept or reject.

If the other person accepts, a video window opens and within seconds you areconnected to someone who could be as close as the next room or as far awayas the other side of the world.

Using the iChat Web sites, I added the screen names of about two dozenstrangers from around the world to my buddy list and waited for one or twoto go online. Over the past week, I've conducted video chats from my homein Maryland with people in California, France and Hong Kong.

Despite some glitches, such as occasionally choppy audio, the overallquality was far better than other video chat solutions I tried (thoughadmittedly my testing was limited to those options that offered Mac OS Xversions of their software.)

Achieving the best possible quality and overall user experience was Apple?smain focus in designing the products, said Kurt Knight, Apple's Internetproduct manager.

A consequence of that focus was sacrificing certain features found inotherWeb video software, such as multiple user chat.

The trouble with multiple chats is the amount of Internet bandwidth andprocessing power required to do it well. As it is, iChat's video optionrequires a cable or DSL connection as well as a Mac with a 600 megahertz G3or better processor. (Users of iChat AV with dial-up service can establishaudio conferences, but need to be using Mac OS 10.2 Jaguar.)

Knight said the system-stressing nature of high-quality video chat meantkeeping the system requirements high.

For example, iChat allows video windows much larger than the sugar-packetsize of other Web chat software. The iChat video window defaults to thesizeof a cassette tape, but thanks to OS X's Quartz rendering engine can beresized to full screen with only mild image fuzziness.

Enlarging the windows of other Web video software usually causes a blockydistortion of the image similar to the effect applied to televisioninterview subjects who wish to conceal their identity.

Another reason iChat requires significant processor horsepower is becauseit does its audio and video compression "on the fly," necessary to make theinteraction more natural.

Internet conversations, both audio and video, tend to suffer from a lagtimebetween when one person utters a word and the other person hears it,interrupting the flow of conversation and causing the audio and video to goout of sync. With iChat, Apple has achieved almost perfect audio/videosync,and has significantly reduced the noisome lag time issue.

Apple has improved the audio in other ways, too. Because of somethingcalled"full duplexing," both participants can speak and hear each othersimultaneously, as opposed to the "one-at-a-time" method -- which Applelikens to talking on a CB radio -- used by other chat software.

The iSight Web cam adds other audio enhancements. It has a "dual-element"microphone that filters out ambient noise and virtually eliminates theannoying echo from your Mac's speakers feeding back into the microphone.

Though iChat will work with third-party microphones and FireWire-based Webcams, and even digital video cameras, it works best with the iSight.

Similarly, the iSight works with most other Web video software. But becauseApple puts great effort into integrating its hardware and software, thebestexperience results from using iChat and iSight together.

Though somewhat pricey at $149, the iSight will prove hard to resist toanyone enchanted by iChat, starting with its characteristically elegantApple design.

Unlike the plastic eyeball-with-feet design of most Web cams, the iSight isa sleek, 4-inch-long aluminum alloy cylinder, weighing a svelte 2.3 ounces.

Because the iSight connects to the Mac via FireWire, it requires but onecable to provide both power and a fast connection for video data.

Other amenities of the iSight include an auto focus lens. Most other Webcams either have a fixed focus, leading to fuzzy images, or a manual focus,requiring constant futzing by the user.

With its built-in processor, the iSight is able to constantly adjust suchelements as the color and exposure of the image it is transmitting. Whilethis results in a sharper, more accurate image than that of other Web cams,there's no substitute for strong ambient light. Even iSight can'tcompensate for the shadowy images caused by a poorly lit room.

Perhaps the iSight's greatest contribution to the iChat experience, though,is how it mounts on your Mac. Apple includes three different clear plasticmounts in the box, each designed to allow placement of the camera atop themonitors of various types of Macs. (If you use one of the mounts withadhesive, take care to place it in the correct position ?-- the mounts arevery sticky and difficult to remove.)

Having the camera atop the monitor means the chatters appear to be facingeach other as they would in a normal conversation rather than looking upeach other's noses, as is the case with desktop-mounted Web cams.

Since video chat has existed for almost 10 years in various forms, iChat AVand the iSight aren't exactly groundbreaking technology. But as it did withthe iPod, Apple looked at the competition and determined it could dobetter.

Seeing is believing.

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