Video via Net phone not worth your time

Plugged In

May 03, 2007|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

Most of the things that were hard to do on a PC 10 years ago are much easier today. Some, such as Internet phone calls, have become so easy that service providers are eliminating the PC altogether.

Unfortunately, turning that Internet phone into a video experience still requires more time, patience and geekery than it's worth, given the results. Unless of course you're a new grandparent, in which case any moving image of that child is video ambrosia.

Being an eternal optimist, I had high hopes when Microsoft asked me to try its LifeCam VX-3000 Pack - a clever but sensible marketing ploy that binds two identical Web cameras into a single package, each with its own box and software CD, for $79.95. Shopping around can save you $10 to $15.

The theory is simple: If you (as proud parent) and Grandma have the same camera and software, you'll find it easier to make contact than you would with different hardware and software. That's especially true if distance makes tech-support visits impossible.

If the video software of choice is Microsoft Live Messenger, the company's instant messaging program, so much the better for Microsoft, which is battling tough competition from AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo, Google and Skype in the online chat market.

First, a word about the hardware. If you haven't tried one, a Web cam is a relatively simple video camera that hooks up to your computer's USB port. Unlike digital or analog camcorders, it can't record on its own - it requires software running on your PC and space on your computer's hard drive for video storage.

Microsoft's LifeCam VX-3000 is an entry-level Web cam that can produce images with a maximum resolution of 640 by 480 pixels. That's fine for Web chatting.

The company's upscale model, the VX-6000, can produce images twice that size, but transmitting video with that resolution over your Internet connection could be problematic.

The VX-3000 is a gray and black orb about 1 1/2 inches across, with a clever tilt-and-swivel base designed to fit snugly on top of a flat-panel monitor. It sports some nice features for the price, including a built-in, noise-canceling microphone (so you don't have to wear a headset) and a software-controlled tilt-and-pan mechanism that lets you adjust the view with a few mouse clicks, instead of doing it manually. The software has a slick face-recognition feature, which will keep your face and others in the center of the window even if you move slightly.

I had no trouble hooking up the LifeCam, installing the software and getting the camera to work. It produced a pleasing, relatively soft image that users above the age of 15 might prefer to one that's super-sharp (although you can sharpen it through software if you like). Capturing video was easy - a matter of clicking a record button on screen. The resulting videos were a bit grainy, but recognizable. My main complaint was a slight but annoying lag in audio synchronization.

Going live in two directions was another matter entirely. My video correspondent this time was my son, who after 20-some years, still finds time in a busy life to humor Dad with these projects. He's also a lot better than I am with networking, which is where he discovered the first problem.

Basically, he couldn't get Microsoft Live Messenger to make contact with the outside world. Eventually, he had to run it on a computer set up in a DMZ (short for demilitarized zone) outside the protection of his firewall. On the Web, he later found that Messenger has a problem with some routers that work fine with other chat programs. Unfortunately, he had one of those routers. It's hard to imaging Grandma setting up a computer in a DMZ.

Luckily, I had no such issues, and when we got Messenger Live running, we were able to make contact without a fuss by putting each other on our "buddy" lists and clicking the mouse to make a "call." I was impressed: Hanging video chat on proven instant messaging software turns out to be light-years better than making contact with earlier video conferencing programs.

Unfortunately, what we saw and heard wasn't worth the effort. No matter how we adjusted the image and other settings, the best we could get was chopped-up video, along with audio that sounded like a badly synchronized dubbing job on a foreign monster flick.

We had no better luck after we substituted headset microphones for the LifeCam's built-in microphone, which could barely pick up our voices even at its most sensitive setting. The microphone was much better at recording in stand-alone mode.

If the LifeCam was, as advertised, optimized for use with Messenger Live, we wondered how bad the video might be with another program. So we both launched Skype, the wildly popular Internet telephony software - and got a pleasant surprise. Not only did it recognize the LifeCam right away, it produced video and audio that were better than Messenger Live.

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