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TECH LAB

Looking into video chat? Options need work

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 3, 2011

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One of the comforts of the telephone is invisibility. Nobody at the other end of the line can see your dirty T-shirt or the spinach in your teeth. Who would want to give that up?

Everybody, or so the gadget-makers seem to believe. They are adding video phone call capabilities to darn near everything — laptops, cellphones, even video games. Sometimes, it even works well.

In smartphones, the best you can get is Apple Inc.’s FaceTime for the iPhone 4. FaceTime also works on iPod Touch media players, Macintosh computers, and soon, the upgraded iPad 2. Setup and operation are nearly painless, and picture quality is quite good.

With the iPhone, you can connect to FaceTime only through a Wi-Fi connection to a broadband network. Apple decided that the 3G data services offered by phone carriers AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless are too slow to deliver decent video quality, and the Verizon version of the iPhone doesn’t connect to that company’s much faster 4G service.

Some other video chat programs for portable devices aren’t so choosey. There is Qik, a California company recently purchased by Skype Ltd., an online telephone company that offers its own video chat software. You will find Qik’s software on a host of phones running Google Inc.’s Android operating system. You can use it to capture videos and share them with family and friends, but I can’t imagine why anybody would use Qik for live video chats.

Unlike FaceTime, Qik runs on 3G and 4G networks as well as Wi-Fi. With one of Samsung’s Android tablet computers, the Galaxy Tab, on the T-Mobile cellular data network, I placed Qik calls to my wife’s HTC EVO 4G Android phone. It wasn’t much fun. Whether I connected using 3G or 4G, I got fuzzy, pixellated images and inconsistent sound quality. The sound was sometimes crystal clear, but often garbled and beset with echoes.

I expected that I would get FaceTime-like performance over a Wi-Fi link, but I was wrong. Despite Wi-Fi’s superior bandwidth, Qik looked and sounded as crude as ever.

Perhaps the new Xoom tablet from Motorola Mobility Inc. could do better. The Xoom runs an upgraded Android version that adds video chat to the familiar Google Talk instant messaging program.

Again, the results were disappointing. Picture quality was significantly better than Qik, but still below the level of an old, standard-definition TV set. And once again, calls were hampered by unreliable audio.

I had better luck with a couple of living room chat systems, which use video cameras plugged into the home broadband network and connect to a TV set.

One was the Revue from Logitech International, a $300 set-top box, introduced last year, that delivers the Google TV entertainment service. By itself, Revue isn’t worth the money, but if you combine it with Logitech’s $149 TV Cam, you get a fine home video chat system.

The TV Cam promises high-definition video of up to 720p. The image I saw in my testing wasn’t quite that sharp, but not at all bad. During one call, a slowdown in Internet performance led to poor sound quality. That cleared up during a later try, and both parties to the call heard each other with minimal noise or echo. With controls on the Google TV keyboard, it’s easy to pan the camera to the left or right, or zoom in so your caller can’t see how messy the room is.

For now, the leader in living room video chat is Microsoft Corp., which has sold more than 8 million of its $149.99 Kinect motion-control systems for the Xbox 360 video game console. Kinect lets you play games with body movements alone; its built-in camera tracks your motion. The same camera lets you hold video chats with other Kinect users, or with subscribers to the Windows Messenger chat software found on many personal computers.

Voices came through loud and clear on the Kinect. Video quality was significantly poorer than on the Logitech system, but still quite acceptable. I was more annoyed that I couldn’t blow up the caller’s image to fill the entire screen.

Kinect doesn’t let you manually zoom the camera or adjust your aim. It’s all automatic. Move left or right, and the camera follows you. Lean forward or backward, and the lens zooms in or out. It was cool to behold, but I didn’t always like its choices and longed for a manual override.

So does video chat have a future? Maybe, once wireless versions deliver better performance. Users must also cope with network routers and firewalls that sometimes block video traffic.

But the biggest problem is incompatibility. Qik users can’t chat with Google Talk users who can’t chat with Logitech or Microsoft users. The industry is just beginning to work on ways to connect all video chat services.

I’m in no hurry. I make a lot of phone calls over lunch, and it’s not a pretty sight.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.