Review: Biscotti makes video chat more family friendly [Video]

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

For many of us with families spread across the country and the world, video chatting has become a staple of our relationships. But gathering around a small Web camera and squinting at a small screen kind of kills the vibe a bit. Biscotti TV Phone is zooming in on that market.

The aptly named $149 camera system is an unintimidating 720p HD camera with wide-angle lens that connects via HDMI cable to your big-screen HDTV. You use the small remote to set it up and connect to your Wi-Fi, and that's about it. No computer needed.

(If you want to get fancy and watch TV while chatting with someone over the Wi-Fi, you can loop it through your cable box via HDMI as well.)

In addition to being able to connect with other Biscotti users, it plays nicely with Google Talk. This means you can bring mobile video chat to the TV so far-away connections can feel like they're also at your board meeting, graduation, etc.

As I mentioned before, my family is a bit spread out, so we have almost entire relationships over phone and video calls. My mom often chats up her grandson over FaceTime or Skype on her iPhone. The problem is that because she has to get super close to see him on the screen, my son thinks his nana's face has only nose, eyes and forehead. So she was excited to serve as my guinea pig for this review.

This kind of device could indeed revolutionize video chat among families, moving it from the office to the family room or living room. The catch is that it has to be super easy to set up and even easier to use regularly.

In theory, the set up is super simple: You take the device, remote, AC adapter and HDMI cable out of the box. Plug the cables into the right slots, prop the camera in the optimum spot and use the remote to follow the prompts on the screen.

Just as an aside, the interface is clean and easy to understand and navigate, although it does require line of sight with the Biscotti device. Also, there's something comforting and calming about the sound of the interface -- reminiscent of Tivo's signature bloops.

As easy as the set-up is, realistically, some folks just won't be able to simply plug in an HDMI cable on the back of their TVs. And, again, simple as it is to tap the arrows on the remote, the setup requires using it for a little too much navigation and data entry.

In our case, it took a visit to my mom's home to set it up. (She's tech savvy enough, but a bit more dial-up than broadband, so to speak, in her own response to new technology, even though she totally embraces it.)

A couple of small quibbles with the onscreen setup: First, the default for entering letters is uppercase. I'd venture to say that the majority of what anyone will want to enter is, actually, lowercase. That adds extra button presses. And, second, all that button pressing gets a bit tough on the thumb.

On the iPhone, we tried it using the free Vtok app. And it worked great. When I connected through Google Talk using the iSight on my MacBook, there was a distracting echo of my voice through the speakers on the other end. (We didn't experience that with the mobile connection or Biscotti to Biscotti.)

We did connect big TV screen to big TV screen. When the camera is directly under or near the screen, it's almost as if you're looking at each other eye to eye, with a decent view of where you each are. The video was clean and clear, even when the lighting wasn't perfect.

You even can adjust the shot on your own end by panning or zooming the camera. Now, if you could do it remotely for the other camera, you'd have something truly remarkable.

I have to admit, my mother exclaimed, "I love Biscotti!" as we disconnected one of our test calls. That's great, but it did take a bit of phone coaching before we got to the actual chat-over-TV stage. I had to play tech support and walk her through switching the source on the TV set and initiating a call. Although that's not likely to happen with the more tech savvy, I'd guess it would happen with many a grandparent who might really benefit from having this kind of camera attached to their TVs.

There are some other cool features, like auto on and auto answer when certain people call. This could make it a pretty decent doggie cam, too -- no paws on the remote needed -- or option for remote caretaking. 

The device has got a lot going for it. One thing Biscotti might want to correct soon is its link to its privacy policy.

[Updated, 10:02 a.m. May 7: The company has since addressed this issue, and the link is functional again.]

Besides that and inducing tired thumbs, it's certainly on the right track and could remove just a little more of the tough-technology barrier to video chatting.


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