Skype Video Chats

Back in the early nineties, the Webcam phenomenon began when someone trained a camera on a coffee pot in a UK computer lab. This enabled bored workers to determine if there was any java left without having to disrupt their personal phone conversations to find out.

The Webcam has come a long way since then. In fact, I'm now among the world's Webcam devotees--at least where videoconferencing is concerned.

Last fall VoIP service provider Skype teamed with Logitech, which sells a line of consumer Webcams, among other things. Through this partnership, Skype users who own the Logitech QuickCam Pro 9000 (about $80 online), QuickCam Pro for Notebooks (also about $80), or QuickCam Orbit AF (about $90) are promised high-quality videoconferencing. (You must also use a dual-core Windows PC on either end of the video conversation to experience the high-quality video.) Best of all, if you're video chatting with another Skype user, the service is free.

I tested the Skype-Logitech combination before, during, and after a recent trip to Toronto. Here's my take on it. (For a guide to videoconferencing and Webcams, see last week's column.)

The Promise

When Skype announced its partnership with Logitech, it released a new version of its VoIP communication software, Skype 3.6 for Windows.

According to Skype, the combination of Skype 3.6 and Logitech QuickCam software version 11.5 enables high-quality video calls, which Skype defines as 640 by 480 pixels (VGA resolution) at up to 30 frames per second over a broadband connection of 384 kbps or higher. Logitech's Webcam drivers are designed to automatically recognize callers who have Skype 3.6 for Windows installed and to initiate high-quality video calls accordingly.

The three QuickCam Pro Webcams compatible with the Skype high-quality video capability offer 2.0-megapixel resolution. Most competitive consumer-level Webcams offer 1.3 megapixels or less. The Logitech Webcams also feature Carl Zeiss lenses, which are known for offering top optical quality.

The Reality

Setting up a Skype account and downloading and installing the Skype software was straightforward, as was installing the Logitech Webcam software. I installed the Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebooks on an HP laptop and the QuickCam Pro 9000 on a Dell desktop PC.

Both Webcams are identical in their features, except that the more compact Pro for Notebooks is designed for portability. Both connect to PCs via USB 2.0 ports, but they are not compatible with the Mac OS. The computers I used for testing have dual-core Intel processors and Windows Vista Home Premium.

Initiating Skype-to-Skype videoconferencing was relatively easy. Launch the QuickCam toolbar, click the Choose Applications icon, and select Skype. Then, in the Skype application, dial the number or select the person's name from your contacts list. Once he or she answers, you both click the Start My Video button at the bottom of the Skype screen, and you're soon eyeball to eyeball with one another.

While in Toronto, I used Skype on the HP laptop to call my partner back in San Francisco, Nick, who answered on the desktop PC in my office. Overall, our experience went smoothly, but there were a few bumps here and there. On at least one occasion, our video call ended abruptly. We also experienced a few lags when the video image froze but the audio continued.

We were both impressed with the video quality. For the most part, movement was fluid, though fast motions, such as a brisk arm wave, came across like a jerky stop-motion animation. Video images were slightly grainy but perfectly acceptable and better than expected, even at full screen. The Webcam's auto focus feature worked well, and audio quality was clear. (I didn't test other videoconferencing options for comparison's sake.)

Worth It?

There are a other caveats to consider. Using Skype, you can only video chat with one person at a time. And Skype 3.6 doesn't include features for recording videoconferences or even just the audio, which would be a nice option for business calls.

But really, I'm nit picking. For less than $200, the Skype-Logitech combination gives you two good-quality Webcams and the ability to have free video chats with your spouse, family members, friends, business colleagues--whomever you want. In particular, I strongly recommend the Skype-Logitech system for those who travel frequently and would like to make free video calls back home.

As for that infamous coffee pot? It eventually burned out. But in 2001, its most recent replacement sold on eBay for £3350.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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