November 27, 1995

New ways to confer via video, mail

VideoPhone isn't picture perfect, but price makes it worth a try

By Matt Kramer


Connectix Corp. tries to deliver good, low-cost videoconferencing in its VideoPhone product. Although the company certainly has mastered the thrifty part of the package, making it good will take a bit more practice.

At $250, the company's QuickCam camera and software-based videoconferencing system, released this month, is especially inexpensive when compared to hardware-heavy solutions, such as Intel Corp.'s ProShare, which can cost more than $1,000.

Although VideoPhone does not provide the high-quality videoconferences that can be achieved with systems that operate from a room dedicated for that purpose and that are equipped with specialized audio and video equipment, the Connectix package gives corporate sites a good way to explore videoconferencing without making a huge investment. Depending on a company's needs and the communications capacity and hardware at its disposal, VideoPhone might be a good choice even with its rough edges.

Because it uses conventional PC hardware, VideoPhone is a snap to install. The camera just plugs into a parallel port on a PC. The package uses PC sound cards for audio and runs all compression and video transmission on the PC's processor.

With support for modems, ISDN, and LANs, VideoPhone works in a wide variety of communications environments. The product also includes basic data-conferencing capabilities by bundling a copy of Future Labs Inc.'s TalkShow shared-whiteboard package.

Because the system is inexpensive, users do have to give up some flexibility. The QuickCam is now only black and white (although a color version is being developed) and the system is proprietary. VideoPhone also only allows bidirectional links between two points, although it can be used for one-way video broadcasts to several points using IP multicasts.

Balancing act Video quality varied widely in PC Week Labs' tests, depending on how much bandwidth was available for transmission. It was easy to adjust the QuickCam to make trade-offs between image size and quality and the communications techniques needed to transmit the video signals, because a wide number of compression techniques can be used with the camera.

VideoPhone can transmit color video if something other than the QuickCam is used. Because the software works with Microsoft Corp.'s Video for Windows API, it supports any Video for Windows capture device and any camera or video recorder attached to that device. If the capture device supports color, the VideoPhone software will transmit color.

When we held a videoconference over a T-1 connection to the Internet, we should have been able to run VideoPhone at its maximum rate of 512K bps. However, because the person we were calling had an ISDN Basic Rate connection to the Internet, we had to slow down to match his communications capabilities. Transmission speed dropped dramatically from the 12 to 15 fps (frames per second) possible on our LAN to 2 fps.

Although the video we exchanged over the Internet was not as sharp as that found in dedicated-room systems that use a 384K-bps dedicated ISDN line, it proved satisfactory for simple views of individuals and objects.

The audio was constrained by the half-duplex sound cards we were using, which meant that both parties could not speak at the same time. VideoPhone has an indicator that turned from red (when the remote user was speaking) to yellow (when the line was idle) to green (when we spoke). The light was easy to miss, however, and the product could benefit from a status-line reminder such as the one found in PictureTel Corp.'s LiveTalk product. (For a Lab Note about LiveTalk, see PC Week, Nov. 6, Page 106.)

A number of times during testing, the remote party's audio was clipped, which meant that we could only hear fragments of what was being said. The busy nature of the Internet and the large number of hops between our test site in Massachusetts and the remote site in California undoubtedly contributed to the problem, but we minimized it somewhat by adjusting VideoPhone to incorporate some pauses between words before switching from transmission to playback.

With support for both TCP/IP and Novell Inc.'s IPX protocol, VideoPhone was easily able to run on our NetWare LAN. We could list correspondents in the VideoPhone address book and assign the appropriate protocol, but it would be easier if the protocol switch could be made automatically.

Connectix, of San Mateo, Calif., is at (800) 950-5880 or at http://www.connectix.com.


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JF