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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 video chat. And though it may not be perfect, Apple's incarnation of video over the Internet makes most of the competition look crude.

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

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Mac users can download the iChat AV "public beta," or unfinished test version, from Apple for free for now. The finished version will be included 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, can cause some breakup of audio and choppiness of video. Still, its video is crisp and smooth and audio much clearer than that of other video chat software.

At the same time, competing video chat software retains some advantages over iChat, 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 AOL Instant Messenger screen name or, if they have one, a .Mac account name and access the AIM network. However, you are limited to text-based instant messaging with users lacking iChat and a high-speed Internet connection.

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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 hopes others eventually will adopt the standards, which would permit iChat users to connect to far more people, particularly the millions in the AIM network.

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

Another limitation of iChat not shared by most other video chat software is a 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, finding fellow iChat users became their biggest challenge.

Not willing to accept defeat, some intrepid Mac users solved the problem themselves by creating their own Web sites where iChat AV users could post their 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 basic biographical data, such as age, gender and geographical location. A search engine helps members find others with similar interests.

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

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

Using the iChat Web sites, I added the screen names of about two dozen strangers from around the world to my buddy list and waited for one or two to go online. Over the past week, I've conducted video chats from my home in

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Maryland
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with people in

California

, France and Hong Kong.

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

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

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

The trouble with multiple chats is the amount of Internet bandwidth and processing power required to do it well. As it is, iChat's video option requires a cable or DSL connection as well as a Mac with a 600 megahertz G3 or better processor. (Users of iChat AV with dial-up service can establish audio conferences, but need to be using Mac OS 10.2 Jaguar.)

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

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

Enlarging the windows of other Web video software usually causes a blocky distortion of the image similar to the effect applied to television interview subjects who wish to conceal their identity.

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

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

Apple has improved the audio in other ways, too. Because of something called "full duplexing," both participants can speak and hear each other simultaneously, as opposed to the "one-at-a-time" method -- which Apple likens 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 the annoying echo from your Mac's speakers feeding back into the microphone.

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

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

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

Unlike the plastic eyeball-with-feet design of most Web cams, the iSight is a 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 one cable to provide both power and a fast connection for video data.

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

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With its built-in processor, the iSight is able to constantly adjust such elements as the color and exposure of the image it is transmitting. While this results in a sharper, more accurate image than that of other Web cams, there's no substitute for strong ambient light. Even iSight can't compensate for the shadowy images caused by a poorly lit room.

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

Having the camera atop the monitor means the chatters appear to be facing each other as they would in a normal conversation rather than looking up each 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 AV and the iSight aren't exactly groundbreaking technology. But as it did with the iPod, Apple looked at the competition and determined it could do better.

Seeing is believing.

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