Saturday, December 03, 2005

Videophone Calling Is Starting to Look Better

Los Angeles Times reported Skype Technologies, the Luxemburg company famous for its free Internet telephone calls, last week launched an update that brings us closer to an elusive technological dream: the videophone. The Skype 2.0 software offers the ability to see as well as hear computer-to-computer callers — provided that both parties have webcams. Video chats, as part of instant messaging services such as one sponsored by Yahoo Inc., have been around for years, but they offer only jerky, pixelated, postage-stamp-sized video that looks like it was transmitted from Jupiter during a sunspot eruption. They seem to be popular mostly among the cyber-sex crowd, but I'm not sure how those people can see anything well enough to get excited. With the Skype 2.0 update, the picture is far clearer, larger and more stable. So much so that this may be the long-awaited application that brings video telephony to the masses, especially now that webcams can be bought for as little as $30. It doesn't hurt that the software is free, like the computer-to-computer calls that allowed Skype to build up a subscriber base of more than 60 million. (The company makes money by selling other services, including prepaid plans for computer-to-traditional telephone calls at low rates.) Version 2.0 — which so far is available only for Windows PCs — retains the Skype desktop contact list that can be used to store information on people with whom you regularly Skype (like Google, the name has reached the status of a verb). If someone on your call list has the updated software and a webcam plugged in, a little video camera icon shows up beside his or her name. You double-click the name and, if your call is accepted, you'll see in a few seconds live video of the person you called, and that person will see you. At first, the image, although clear, is a tad disappointing — nearly as small as those on the instant message sites. But you can drag the image onto the desktop and enlarge it with no serious loss in visual fidelity. I found that I could expand the picture window to about 5 inches wide and 4 inches high for comfortable viewing. The audio quality, always good on Skype, remains excellent — sometimes better than even on a land-line phone.

I have not tried the video on Skype 2.0, but I agree about the audio quality. I have spoken to a friend in Australia, and you would have thought he was just next door.

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