Comcast gives reason to dust off Web cams

September 09, 2004|By Mike Himowitz

OVER THE YEARS, I've spent a lot of time fooling around with Web cams. But even with a broadband connection, I've never been impressed with the fuzzy pictures, dropped frames and mismatched audio that rewarded hours of tinkering with balky hardware and convoluted software.

As a result, after a few weeks, I unplugged every Web cam I ever tried and removed the software - the technology just wasn't ready for prime time.

Still, hope springs eternal, and when Comcast sent me a message announcing a new video e-mail service for its broadband customers, I took the bait.

The results were a pleasant surprise.

The cable giant, with 6 million broadband customers, has been pumping up its online video offerings in news, sports and entertainment to promote the benefits of broadband, and particularly cable's speed advantage over its main high-speed competitor, DSL.

In many markets, phone line-based DSL is cheaper, but its maximum download speed is generally less than half of cable's. That's no big deal for normal Web browsing and e-mail. It only starts to matter when you pump lots of data down the pipeline, as in downloading large files or streaming video.

Even with cable's speed advantage, two-way video - as in video conferencing - is problematic. One reason is that cable is highly asymmetrical. Comcast, for example, offers a maximum 2.5 megabits per second download speed - meaning from the Comcast network to your PC. From your computer to the network (uploading), the speed is capped at one-tenth of the download rate.

The speed brakes on uploading, typical of most broadband Internet Service Providers serving the consumer market, keep customers from operating bandwidth-hogging servers at home. Once again, that's no problem for average users. It does slow things down annoyingly for people who want to transfer large files from home to work, or upload large digital images to an online photo-sharing service.

The limit also makes two-way home videoconferencing a chore, because each side is limited to the artificial cap on upload speeds. Internet congestion - and the limitations of packet-switched networking - don't help either.

Video e-mail takes advantage of cable's strengths and avoids its weaknesses. Although it's hardly what I'd call the killer ap (application) for broadband, Comcast's version turned out to be well-conceived and fun to use.

Its strength is that it doesn't try to do much - but what it does, it does well. It's a simple, one-way system that records up to 45 seconds of recognizable video and sends it to the recipients of your choice - whether they're Comcast customers or not.

If you have kids who want to send a quick message to grandma, it's hard to beat. There are no bulky downloads because the video is stored on Comcast's servers. Your recipient gets an e-mail with a link to a Web site that automatically streams the video onto the page through Microsoft's Media Player plug-in.

To use it, of course, you'll need a Web cam. These gadgets, most of which plug into a computer's USB port, are available in computer stores for anywhere between $20 and $150. Comcast offers good online deals on several low-end models from Veo and Logitech, starting at $30. If your camera doesn't have a built in microphone, you'll need one of those, too - or for best quality, a headset mike.

For my test, I unearthed a USB Turbo 2.0 Web Cam from Ads Technologies - a discontinued model that wasn't on Comcast's list of supported cameras but installed with no problem and worked well.

Once the camera was set up, I downloaded and installed Comcast's video mail software. A small window with a simple configuration screen that allowed me to choose my input device (in this case the Web cam, although it's possible to use a regular video camera if your PC is equipped with a video capture card). After a few minutes with a setup routine that adjusted the audio level and video - brightness, contrast, color balance, and so forth - I was ready to go.

Creating a straight video e-mail is a matter of clicking buttons on the screen. In one half of the pane, you'll see yourself through the camera's eye. To start recording, click a record button, look at the camera and start talking. If you finish before the allotted 45 seconds, you can push the stop button.

When you're through, a preview button plays the video back so you can start over if you don't like it. That done, the send button brings up a screen with a form for the recipient's e-mail address, a subject line and short message. You can send the same video to multiple recipients and add a copy for yourself. One more click and the video uploads to Comcast's server, which takes about a minute. That's it.

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