SightSpeed, ooVoo and Skype - the Comparison

With a couple of weeks of installation, testing and debugging finished, and thanks to a lot of patient assistance from my brothers, in Atlanta and Colorado Springs, and a new friend, in the U.K.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor on

With a couple of weeks of installation, testing and debugging finished, and thanks to a lot of patient assistance from my brothers, in Atlanta and Colorado Springs, and a new friend, in the U.K., I'm ready to present some conclusions about using these three programs head-to-head. This still goes largely in the category of "first impressions", because for any of these programs you need weeks of using it before you start to really get to know the ins and outs of it. There are also a number of features and capabilities of each of these I have had neither the time nor the opportunity to use yet. What I have tried to concentrate on here is getting each of these programs set up and working so that you could have an audio or video chat with your parents/spouse/children/grandchildren/friends.

Installation - For absolute ease of installation, the clear winner is ooVoo. Download the file, execute it, answer one question (for which the default is correct 99% of the time), and you're up and running. SightSpeed is a close second in this category. You have to go through their Configuration Wizard as part of the installation, and it asks you questions about your internet connection, camera, microphone and speakers, and gives you the opportunity to test most of them. This is not a bad thing, it indicates that SightSpeed is paying close attention to your operating environment, and they are trying to make sure that they do the best job they can in your specific conditions. Last in this category is Skype, first because the download file is very large (22MB) compared to the others (6Mb and 8 MB), but even more because they obscure some important installation options in a separate page of the procedure which I would guess 90+% of users never see or even know exists, and as a result they install their "Extras Manager" and "Browser Plug-Ins" by default, both of which have been known to cause serious problems. Users who suddenly find that their Internet Explorer is freezing, crashing, or otherwise misbehaving, are not likely to suspect that a Skype Browser Plug-In is the culprit, especially if they didn't even realize that it was being installed!

Start-Up and Configuration - Again, for sheer simplicity, ooVoo wins hands down. It seems to do a good job of figuring out the most likely camera, microphone and speaker devices, and it just starts up and does the best it can with your internet connection. While technical people might think that is a rather slack approach, from experience I can say that in most cases it works just as well as asking the user, when they are not likely to even understand the question, much less know the answer. SightSpeed does a much more thorough job of looking around and asking questions about the configuration, and has defaults or wizards to help with most of them. SightSpeed is rather picky about the configuration, and if it detects that something has changed, usually in the audio input/output, it will force you to run the Configuration Wizard again. I suppose that if you are using a desktop computer with a fixed configuration, this doesn't happen very often. But since I take my laptop back and forth between home and the office, and use it in both places as well as on the train and bus in between, my configuration changes often and I'm getting pretty tired of telling that Configuration wizard that I want to use the same old boring setup - the devices I want to use don't change between locations. What seems to trigger this most often is having a camera with a built-in microphone, even if you aren't actually using that microphone for audio input. When SightSpeed detects at startup that a microphone has appeared or disappeared, it insists on running the Configuration Wizard. It would be nice to have a way to tell the wizard "this is the configuration I want, so please don't bother me again unless something in this configuration changes - don't bother me just because other devices that I'm not interested in are coming and going". Skype is once again in last place here, as they have an absolutely baffling array of options and configuration possibilities. It looks sort of like every switch or option that has ever been put in to handle every problem or unusual situation they have encountered is still lurking in there.

Audio and Video Calls - This is what we are really here for, isn't it? Making a call to someone. Each of the programs has significant advantages and disadvantages compared with the others.In my opinion SightSpeed comes out on top, because they do a consistently better job all around. This is where their insistence on knowing as much as possible about your configuration in the previous steps really pays off. A look in the debug information shows that they have a number of different levels of audio and video quality, and they will preselect one based on what they have figured out about your configuration. SightSpeed is also very conservative about webcams - they have a rather short list of "tested and approved" cameras, and if you have one that is not on that list they will warn you the first time they detect it. However, I tested it this weekend with four different cameras (two Logitech and two Philips), none of which was "approved", and every one of them worked just fine. Video quality was good, even with my brother who only has a minimal 128k/512k ADSL connection. My friend in the U.K. has a 384k/1500k connection, and video calls with him were consistently excellent. My own connection is 512k/5000k.

SightSpeed has a more flexible video presentation than the other two, as well. The incoming video is initially within the SightSpeed main window, together with your contact list. If you switch to "video-only" mode, which removes the contact list, you can then increase the size of the incoming video window. There is also a "full screen" button, which will expand the incoming video to fill the entire display, but as I have said before, 320x240 video stretched to full screen is generally not a pretty sight. The only significant disadvantage that I have found to SightSpeed is that you can't do multi-party audio calls with the basic version - or even text chats, for that matter! The Plus version supports up to four-way video, audio or text chat connections. I could be wrong about this, it seems like a rather severe restriction to me, but if I am it's not from lack of searching for it, and I'm sure someone from SightSpeed will let me know about it pretty quickly.

Second place in audio/video calling is ooVoo. As I have said every time I have written about them, they have one killer advantage - up to six-way video conferencing. If you've got the processing power and bandwidth to handle this, it is just wonderful. SightSpeed can do four-way video in their "Plus" (paid) version, and Skype can't do more than one-to-one video at all. However, in my situation, with the people whom I call regularly and did the testing with, ooVoo struggles to keep up. With my brother, on the 128k internet connection, the video quality was rather poor, it had a serious tendency to jump, freeze and pixellate, and when that happened the audio quality was also seriously degraded. Even worse, it seemed to develop progressively worse lag, so that by the time we were a few minutes into a conversation, we felt like we needed to say "over" at the end of every sentence. I would emphasize that this only happens when one or both ends of the connection are on a relatively low speed line - if your contacts have at least moderately fast connections, you won't see this kind of problem.

Skype also has one significant advantage over the other two in video calls - their much-hyped "High Quality Video" capability. If you have one of only three "anointed" Logitech webcams, and you have either an Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Dual Core CPU, and you have at least 384K upload and download bandwidth, and you have a bit of luck, you might get 640x480 resolution at 25-30 frames per second. When it works, it is indeed very nice, the difference in video quality is immediately obvious. However, those requirements limit this to a very small percentage of current users, and they are very strictly - and sometimes strangely - enforced. Particularly the CPU gets into silly restrictions; very fast single processor systems, older "Muli-Processor" systems, and even Quad-Core systems are not allowed to have high quality video mode. This is not like the SightSpeed "approved camera" list, where they say what they have tested and you might well find that your camera works just fine; in this case, if you don't have exactly the right camera and CPU, you are out of luck. However, the reason I place Skype at the bottom of the ratings in audio and video calling is that in my experience it is just a constant struggle with one problem after another. I have been using Skype for video calls with my brother in Atlanta for a year now, and since the first call we have had problems with his video freezing. We have tried everything, changing connections, speeds, camera settings, lighting and anything else we could think of, and nothing stopped it from freezing. In the past two weeks I have had quite a few SightSpeed video calls with him, and it hasn't frozen once - and the overall video quality looks much better. My other brother, in COlorado Springs, has always had problems with intermittent static noise in Skype video calls. We have also put quite a bit of effort into fixing that, to no avail, and it was so bad that we seldom talked for long. I have now gotten him to switch to SightSpeed, and we have had several long video calls with no audio problems at all. Both of them are using good computers and Logitech webcams, and we didn't change anything on either computer other than installing SightSpeed and deleting Skype. I don't understand why Skype has so many problems with so many different cameras, audio devices and such, but it was a constant theme in the Skype User Forums as well. In multi-party calls, Skype falls between ooVoo and SightSpeed. It only supports one-to-one video calls, but it will do multi-party audio calls or text chat.

This posting has gone on long enough (too long, as usual). I will follow up in the next few days with comments about other features of these three programs, and whatever (inevitable) corrections I get from these companies and/or their irate users.

jw 10/12/2007

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