Video chats through PC not stellar

January 15, 2001|By Mike Himowitz

When my older son headed off to college, I thought it would be a great idea to keep in touch by videocon- ferencing over the Web. Being uncharacteristically tolerant of his parents, the lad was willing to give it a try.

We tried out a variety of cameras and software, but none of the gadgets available in the fall of 1997 was ready for prime time. The images were grainy, motion was spastic, the connections were spotty, and the video and audio were so out of sync that a conversation had all the charm of a badly dubbed foreign film. Even when I got high-bandwidth cable Internet service a few years later, the result was never worth the effort.

Now that my son is a senior, we communicate mainly by e-mail, ICQ chat or telephone. But I've never given up on two-way video, and when a couple of Ezonics EZPhone Cams arrived in the mail, I was ready to try again.

Unlike most Web cam systems, which make you responsible for coordinating video and audio, the $120 EZPhone has a built-in microphone, so that everything travels through your computer's USB port. It also features a program called EZ Video Chat, which is supposed to make videoconferencing as easy as a phone call.

In fact, the EZPhone CAM is the size and shape of a compact cell phone, with a vertically swiveling lens at the top, a green "antenna" that glows when someone calls, and buttons for instant snapshots and speed "dialing."

The base of the unit was solid and stable, which meant the camera didn't try to scoot across the top of my monitor as some Web cams do. The cord was also long enough to reach from the desktop to the USB port of a PC sitting on the floor.

To try EZPhone on the other end, I drafted Steve Auerweck, The Sun's director of newsroom technology, who made the mistake of mentioning that he wanted to try videoconferencing when his son goes to college in the fall. I figured that if two guys with a total of 35 years of PC experience couldn't make it work, nobody could.

We almost didn't.

The camera requires a 266 MHz Pentium processor or better, at least 32 megabytes of memory, 60 megabytes of hard disk space, a SoundBlaster-compatible video card and Windows 98 or later. That's not much horsepower by today's standards, and my PC, a 700 MHz Athlon-based system , had more than enough.

The installation CD features a bundle of cute, video-based programs called EZ Suite, which includes a video e-mail generator, video greeting card software and a basic video-editing program. Unfortunately, Ezonics wants to install all of them before it gets around to setting up the software that actually drives the camera.

When I got through dumping this morass on my hard drive, I found that most of the programs wouldn't work. I couldn't get them to recognize the camera, and EZ Video Chat wouldn't let me register with the company's servers until I completely disabled the firewall software that protects my system from hackers.

After some tinkering, I realized that the programs were confused by my 3dfx video card, which also has a video-capture port. Unfortunately, there was no central function for changing video settings, so I had to tinker with each of them separately. Even then, I couldn't get EZ Video Chat to display a picture until I'd wiped the rest of the EZ Suite mess off my hard drive.

Steve had better luck with the installation on his end, and eventually we were able to make contact. The slick EZ Video Chat software works on the same principle as ICQ Chat and AOL Instant Messenger, allowing you to set up "buddy" lists of other users who show up as humorous icons on a panel at the right of your screen. To call a buddy who's online, all you have to do is click on his image. At the other end, the "phone" rings and a box pops up to ask your correspondent if he wants to accept the call. When he clicks "Yes," his image shows up in a tiny TV set on your screen; you show up on his.

It took 45 minutes of tweaking the program's video and audio settings to get something that approached normal conversation. Although the camera can theoretically capture 30 frames per second, it transmitted data at one-third that rate, which made the moving images jerky, grainy but certainly recognizable.

Part of our problem was the arbitrary speed limits set by our Internet Service Providers. Comcast@Home limits upstream traffic to 128 kbps per second, while Steve's Verizon DSL service provides even less bandwidth on the transmitting end. If you don't have these limits, you'll probably get better quality; with a dialup service using a standard 56K modem, it will probably be worse.

While the connection was acceptable overall, we were disappointed by the sound, which was raspy and made voices almost unrecognizable. To see if this was a limitation of the EZPhone's built-in microphone, we tried getting the software to recognize regular headset mikes. It's supposed to do that, but neither of us could get them to work.

The verdict? If you don't run into conflicts with other hardware or software, the EZPhone Cam makes it relatively easy to find and chat with other users. You're not limited to people with EZPhone - the software is based on Microsoft Netmeeting and the camera is compatible with other programs that use the industry's H.323 video standard.

On the other hand, it took some serious tweaking to get the program working properly. I don't know that it's a good idea to buy a pair of EZPhone Cams and ship one to Grandma to set up by herself.


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