June 26, 2003 at 5:00 am #16223
David Pogue, NY Times
June 26, 2003
INSTANT messaging certainly has its charms. You and a conversation partner on the Internet type back and forth in a narrow window, your quips scrolling up the screen like a hastily written script. The fact that you can’t see or hear the other person is either the best feature or the worst, depending on how self-conscious you are and how your hair looks.
Better start combing. Last week both Microsoft and Apple incorporated audio and video into their popular chat programs, now called MSN Messenger 6 and iChat AV. You can download them free at messenger.msn.com or apple.com/ichat, respectively, as part of a public beta test – a software company’s way of saying, “Sure they’re buggy, but what do you want for free?”
Even in their preliminary incarnations, these programs illustrate two important points. First, the addition of voice and video changes the experience so profoundly, it’s not really chat any more. Second, Apple and Microsoft may as well have come from different planets.
For example, Microsoft, true to tradition, has focused on expanding its list of features, while Apple has worked toward elegance and simplicity. Messenger is a cacophony of brightly colored buttons, panels, blinking advertisements and, in the new version, animated (and even homemade) smileys; iChat AV maintains the clean lines and brushed-metal “surfaces” of its text-only predecessors. The new features of Messenger 6 include custom window backgrounds and interactive games like checkers; iChat AV is dedicated solely to communication. Messenger 6, in its ultimate form, will be free; iChat AV will cost $30 (but will be free with Apple’s next operating-system release, Mac OS X 10.3, code-named Panther, due by year’s end).
MSN Messenger works with almost any old Webcam, like one of those $60 golf-ball cameras that you perch on your monitor and plug into your PC with a U.S.B. cable. (You also need a free MSN.com or Hotmail account; iChat AV requires a free .Mac or AOL Instant Messenger account. The MSN-Hotmail and .Mac-AIM networks are still, alas, mutually incompatible.)
If both conversation partners have high-speed Internet connections or are on the same office network, Messenger’s video looks very good. You have only three size choices for the video – small, smaller or microscopic – but it’s bona fide video.
If one of you works in a corporate office, however, and therefore sits behind a firewall (a layer of hacker-proof hardware or software), much less data wriggles through. What you see isn’t so much video as a series of stuttering still images, sent once or twice a second, like someone illuminated by a strobe light in a dance club.
Unfortunately, you get the same effect if one or both of you connects to the Internet using a dial-up modem. Phone lines just aren’t fat enough to transmit quality video, so all MSN Messenger can do is fake it. Maybe that’s why Messenger’s typed chat area remains open even during voice or video calls, just in case.
Apple, on the other hand, would sooner die than release anything that could be described as “stuttering” or “microscopic.” In iChat AV, video is as crisp, clear, bright and smooth as television (640 by 480 pixels), in a window as small as a Triscuit or as big as your screen. Unless you begin to type, the typed-chat window isn’t even visible during a video or audio call.
Beware, however: Apple offers this top-tier experience only if you have top-tier gear. Video calls require high-speed Internet connections at both ends; dial-up fans need not apply. Apple says that audio calls work over dial-up connections, but mine didn’t work without a broadband hookup on at least one end.
And iChat AV turns up its nose at those U.S.B. golf-ball Webcams. It requires a video camera with FireWire (a very fast connector also found on every Macintosh).
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