I started the day today thinking that I would write a "Calm Before the Storm" blog entry, saying that things have been quiet for the past few weeks, but new releases are likely to be coming soon from all four of the major companies in Video IM. Well, it turns out that the "Storm" got to me before I would even write that. The first thing in my mail this morning was a notice that a new beta release is available from ooVoo.
This will be primarily a "First Impressions" writeup, because I obviously haven't had time to do very extensive testing yet. But I want to get this first one out quickly, just to say that this release looks VERY good, it is clearly a big step in the right direction. If this impression holds up after more testing, and I don't end up with egg on my face, this is going to be a very positive development for ooVoo. I've said several times that they had the potential to be a real leader in this market, and this could put them firmly in that position.
Ok, details. The download and installation is quick and easy, just as it was for the previous ooVoo release. Of course both of my laptops already had ooVoo version 188.8.131.52 on them, so just for variation in testing conditions, I installed on one of them without removing the previous release, and on the other I removed the previous version before installing the new release. Both installed without a hitch. I also verified that the new version is functionally compatible with the previous version, I was able to make video calls and chat sessions between the two with no problems.
Presence detection is good. With my two laptops running side by side on my desk, they each detected ooVoo on the other starting and stopping within a few seconds - as opposed to Skype, which is still unable to get this reliably right. I have watched these two laptops sit here with incorrect Skype status for each other literally for hours. As was even mentioned recently in the Skype Journal, "IM is nothing without simple presence signaling", so I guess Skype's inability to get this right means they are nothing, and ooVoo is definitely something!
The cosmetics of the user interface in the new ooVoo release are, if anything, even better than the previous version. First, they are consistent - no gratuitous changes, so we don't have to re-learn where or what previously familiar things are. New things that have been added fit in nicely, and look and work logically as well, to the point that I actually often have to have the old and new versions running side by side so I can see what has been added. This is really a non-trivial achievement, and it indicates that significant care and thought were given to the development, which is certainly not always the case. One good example of this is the extension of the previous "Favorites Sidebar Display" to the new "Video Call Sidebar View". It's a nice new feature, it fits well both functionally and conceptually, and I can easily think of situations where it will be useful.
I am very pleased indeed with the improvements in the camera controls. They have added a "Video quality" section, with a slider for setting outgoing video quality/bandwidth, and a drop-down selection for setting frame rate. This is an excellent implementation of a very good idea, and it puts the control over video quality and bandwidth use exactly where it should be, in the user's hands, rather than either trying to make the program figure it all out. I have complained many times about Skype's so-called "High Quality Video" being a poor implementation of a fundamentally bad idea, and now ooVoo comes along and gives us a first look at how it could and should be done properly. The issues and differences are quite clear:
- First, in determining "optimal" video quality, several potentially complex factors need to be considered: CPU/Memory capacity, camera quality, network bandwidth, receiving end capabilities. Trying to determine these on the fly in the program is extremely difficult, and results in things like webcams incessantly blinking on and off in Skype, video resolution being reduced to silly levels in an effort to keep frame rate up, and so on. Putting the controls in the user's hands, when they are sitting in front of the camera and can easily get a "feel" for what is possible, makes everything simpler and more reliable.
- Second, it is simply not true that "more is better" in every case. The fact that a given configuration CAN do higher resolution, frame rate, or both, doesn't mean that it unconditionally SHOULD do so. There are plenty of users, and plenty of situations, where limiting the bandwidth, data volume or system load takes priority over video quality. Again, giving the user control over this is clearly better.
- Third, even if you subscribe to the "more is better" and "let the computer decide" camps, getting this right is obviously difficult, and the consequences of getting it wrong can be severe - just ask some of the hundreds of Skype users who are complaining about video performance in their User Forums right now.
Another nice addition to the video call window is the ability to reduce the size of the outgoing video window. There still isn't as much control and flexibility in video window sizes as I would like to see, but it's obvious ooVoo is listening to their customers, and this is at least a good step in the right direction.
I have tested this release with three laptops and cameras so far:
Fujitsu Lifebook S6510, Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2 GHz, 2 GB, XP Pro
Fujitsu Lifebook S2110, AMD Turion 64 2.0 GHz, 2 GB, XP Pro
Dell Inspiron 6000, Intel Pentium M 1.73 GHz, 1 GB, XP Pro
All three work very well with the new ooVoo release. One-to-one video call quality and speed are very significantly better than with the previous ooVoo release. The big news, though, is the improvement in the multi-way video conferencing performance. I've said before that this could be the "killer advantage" of ooVoo, if they could get it right and get the performance acceptable, and at first glance it looks like they might have done that with this release. A three-way video call with these laptops works just fine. There is none of the horrendous video lag that I experienced in a three-way call with the previous release. I will be doing more testing of this, and I'll write about it again in the next few days.
In conclusion, this looks like an excellent new release from ooVoo. They have made a lot of improvements in every area - appearance, performance and reliability. I strongly recommend that anyone who is interested in Video IM give it a try.