Broadband videophone has hangups

April 10, 2003|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

THE 1964 WORLD'S Fair was one of the great technology showcases of the 20th century, and one of its most popular gee-whiz attractions was the AT&T Picturephone.

Like millions of others who paraded through the exhibit, I sat in a booth in front of a gadget that combined a TV screen and camera and saw a video image of a friend in another booth while we talked on the phone. It was amazing - just like The Jetsons.

AT&T assured us that Picturephones for everyone were just around the corner, and after four decades of technical progress, that's where they remain today.

It's certainly not for lack of trying on the industry's part. Over the last few years I've tried out a dozen PC-based Web cams and phone-based gadgets that promised to make a video call as simple as that AT&T exhibit.

I'll concede that with enough tinkering, some of them produced vaguely humanoid images of friends and relatives, with audio that occasionally synchronized with the person's lip movement. But I've never found anything ready for prime time.

Still, hope sprang eternal two weeks ago when I unpacked the i2eye Broadband Videophone from D-Link, a new entry from a company best known for its home and small-business networking equipment. At $299 ($499 for a pair) the i2eye is an expensive piece of equipment. But if it provided the ease of use and quality D-Link promised, it would be worth considering.

As its name implies, the i2eye is designed to work with broadband Internet connections - cable or DSL - which theoretically provide enough bandwidth for full-motion video. But unlike PC Web cams, i2eye connects directly to a TV set on one end and a broadband router on the other (a router is a device that lets more than one PC share a high-speed Internet connection).

As a result, the i2eye doesn't require a computer. That's a nice feature, but it still has to be within cable reach of a router, so it's not something you can use with any TV in the house.

The videophone itself is a box 8 inches wide, 6 inches deep and 1.5 inches high, with a tilt-lens camera eye projecting from the front and a remote control for "dialing" other i2eye users and changing system settings.

Setup requires using your PC to "forward" several ports on your router. If you're baffled by that statement, you'll understand why this isn't a gadget you can just send off to Grandma so she can plug it in and talk to the kids - unless Grandma happens to be a retired engineer.

The instruction manual explains how to accomplish port forwarding, but folks who aren't familiar with networking may find the process intimidating.

Another quirk - the i2eye works better if you have a spare phone and plug it into a jack on the back of the camera unit. That's because the built-in speakerphone is half-duplex, a system that allows only one person to talk at a time. A phone provides normal, full duplex conversation and allows you to "dial" another user with the keypad instead of the remote control. (By the way, none of this ties up your home phone line - it's just a way to transmit audio to and from the Internet.)

Once everything is hooked up, you can use the remote control to "register" your phone number with D-Link's online directory. It can be your real phone number or one you make up - just something easy to remember. Once it's registered, another i2eye user can "dial" either your registered number or your router's IP address (a set of 12 numbers that uniquely identify every computer on the Internet).

I gave the second i2eye to my son, who lives about 20 miles away and has a new kind of high-speed Internet service - fixed point wireless. He was never able to "dial" the number I registered, but we were able to make contact using IP addresses.

Immediately we learned the real lesson of consumer broadband - it's only broad in one direction. That's bad news for video as a two-way medium.

For example, my ISP, Comcast Cable, provides a speed of 1.5 megabits per second when I'm downloading, or receiving information, but only 128 kilobits per second (kbps) when I'm sending. This isn't normally a problem since I'm receiving information most of the time on the Web. But in two-way communication, you're limited to upload speed on each end.

D-Link says its proprietary video compression will deliver acceptable video at speeds as low as 96 kbps; the best we were able to get were jerky, shadowy images and barely audible voice. Not ready for prime time.

Figuring that this might be a problem on my son's end (his upstream connection speed is spotty), I gave the second unit to a colleague who uses Verizon DSL Internet service, which also has a 128 kbps upload limit.

After a bit of tinkering, we were able to get dark and grainy - but recognizable - images of one another that pixilated when we moved quickly, but were acceptable for normal conversation. Using the built in speakerphone, I could barely understand him. The phone handset worked better, although there was annoying background hum.

A D-Link rep said the system requires 512 kbps for normal, 30-frame-per-second video. That's far more bandwitdth than typical home installations like ours have.

Even so, the i2eye was better than most of the Web cams I've tried. But it's expensive for what it delivers. Considering the tinkering it takes to get set up, I'd say wait a while - I'm sure a better videophone is just around the corner.

Information: www.dlink. com or 800-326-1688.

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