These days, the best thing about broadband isn’t the speed — it’s the cool new applications you get to run on top of it.
Take videoconferencing. Emerging products and applications make the old days of webcams seem like black and white TV vs colour.
Broadband’s fat pipe gives you a chance for higher resolution and increased frame rates, meaning less jitter and latency.
We spent the past few weeks trying out some of the latest gear and software aimed at the power consumer. But consumer technology also can help firms stay in touch with their remote-office workers.
We wanted to try a sample of what’s out there — different forms and methods of connecting mean that these are not one-size-fits-all products.
Your situation and preferences might vary from ours.
For successful home videoconferencing, start with a good quality webcam. For products that required one, we used the Logitech QuickCam Pro 4000 ($US80). The device comes with Yahoo’s Messenger, which includes a videoconferencing feature with its instant-messenging application.
Other instant-messaging services, such as Windows Messenger, also provide videoconferencing. These applications are good, but sound and picture qualities depend on the quality of the webcam and Internet traffic. Bottom line: If the picture is important, go with a higher-end model.
Yahoo Messenger has a SuperCam mode that lets you enhance the image quality when you’re videoconferencing with one person directly rather than with several at once. However, this involves opening ports on your home gateway or router, so you’ll need some network knowledge.
Apple iSight and iChat AV
We had a blast with Apple’s iSight camera and iChat AV application. At test time, the iChat AV was still in beta, but it had enough great features to warrant a look. The system works only with Macintosh computers running OS X 10.2.5 or later, and a broadband connection is required.
The iSight camera is a sleek webcam with a stylish design. It connects via a FireWire port, giving it faster transfer rates to the computer than with traditional USB cameras (although some USB 2.0 webcams are shipping). We tested the product on the 17-inch screen of a PowerBook G4 and 12-inch PowerBook G4 notebook connected to a router and cable modem delivering 768Kbps downstream and 128Kbps upstream.
Set-up and configuration was a breeze, and we were up and videoconferencing in no time. No firewall or router configuration was necessary; the iChat AV application detected whether the camera was operational and whether any buddies had their cameras ready. Sending an instant message to a buddy also sends a videoconferencing request pop-up message; once the recipient accepts, the connection is made. (While we could chat with PC users, we could only videoconference with iSight and iChat AV users.)
Apple gets auto-focus right. On other webcams, we usually ended up manually configuring the focus settings, which never seemed quite right.
The iSight camera does this for you. The picture was extremely clear.
You can stream video up to 30 frames per second, but we got about 13 to 15 frame/sec. A higher frame rate might eat up bandwidth on your network, so the amount of network activity could affect performance quality.
We liked the D-Link DVC-1000 i2eye videophone because it doesn’t require a PC — just a network with a broadband connection. The device supports both 802.11b wireless and wired Ethernet networks, although for the former you’ll need to add a wireless Ethernet adapter.
Like a games console, the appliance connects to a TV through RCA jacks for video and audio. Configuration is handled on-screen via a remote control. Set-up involved setting an IP address for the box (either Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol [DHCP] or static). The DVC-1000 uses an external directory server hosted by D-Link that lets users register a phone number for the device. You can pick any number, so we used our landline number. When another DVC-1000 user dials your number, your DVC-1000 rings and lets you accept the call. This procedure lets users connect to each other without knowing their devices’ IP addresses.
To talk, you can connect an analog telephone to the device, which we preferred over using the microphone. But to dial, we found the remote control on the TV easier to use than the phone’s keypad.
Picture and audio quality were excellent, as the TV screen gave us a larger picture than our PC’s monitor. The manual focus ring on the device adjusted well to the amount of light in the room. There was some slight pixilation, especially when the subject moved around a lot, but for the most part we were happy with the quality.
For remote workers, this might not make the best option because they will need TVs in their offices. But it’s a great “chatting with Grandma” product, if she has broadband.
The most professional-looking device we tested, the Viseon VisiFone is a standard office phone with an added video camera and screen. Like the D-Link DVC-1000, the VisiFone doesn’t require a PC and worked on a wired Ethernet or wireless network (with a wireless Ethernet adapter). Viseon plans to sell the phone to broadband providers as a way for them to sell enhanced services; however, you can buy it directly from the company.
Set-up was pretty easy — once we connected the power and the Ethernet cable, we chose how to connect to the network. Set-up occurs on the phone’s video screen; when finished we had to reboot.
Some network knowledge is needed, because the device needs to know whether it gets a static IP address or one dynamically assigned from a DHCP server. The documentation, which wasn’t very good, had about 12 different network set-up scenarios, which was odd because the end user or IT manager should know the best way to set up the system.
With set-up complete, we dialled the recipient by tapping in his IP address on the phone’s keypad or by choosing the name from the device’s phone book. (You need to enter names manually.)
Before the system would work, we had to tweak it several times and call tech support. The Viseon support staff was extremely helpful and quickly got us up and running.
The image quality was excellent, in part because of the small screen size. We could see and hear the caller on the other end, and video and audio synchronised nicely. There was no way to track frame rate or other statistics directly through the phone, which made it difficult to tell what we achieved. Viseon recommends using a minimum broadband connection of 256Kbps for upload, warning that a slower connection can produce jitter and latency. Even so, we thought our 128Kbps upload speeds were fine.
For home workers connecting at their desks, this might be the best option.