Tech Talk - ooVoo

Time for some of the technical details about ooVoo that I didn't want to include in the first impressions blog entry, or I wanted a bit more time to research and test before discussing.First, the best things about ooVoo:- It is really easy to download and install.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

Time for some of the technical details about ooVoo that I didn't want to include in the first impressions blog entry, or I wanted a bit more time to research and test before discussing.

First, the best things about ooVoo:

- It is really easy to download and install. Yes, I know that I said this in the first posting about it, but I can't emphasize that enough. It's really, really easy, and the majority of the time it just works.

- The appearance, "look and feel", "user interface", however you want to term it, is very pleasant, and also quite simple. Buttons are large and colorful, and the graphics on them and pop-up tips for them make it very obvious what they are for.

- The six-way video conference capability is amazing. If you've got the bandwidth and processing power to handle it, and you need or want this capability, this can be the "killer" reason to go with ooVoo. But that is a big IF - it takes a LOT of bandwidth, and a LOT of processing power for every additional participant in a video call.

Next, of course, the worst things about ooVoo:

- There is no "technical data" or "debug info" available that I can find, so I can't be sure what video resolution and frame rate it sends. On my test systems it looks like 320x240 and certainly not more than 15 FPS, probably less - it is very prone to smearing and ghosting. I spent quite a while searching their web page, FAQs and User Forums for information on this, but couldn't find anything.

- There doesn't seem to be an option to start an audio-only call. If you have a webcam ooVoo will try to use it, you can't even go into the ooVoo camera settings and tell it to disable the outgoing video. Your only alternatives are to unplug the camera before you start the call, or let the call connect and then click "stop camera". If you're on a low-speed connection, such as a dial-up when you are traveling, it can be very painful to even try to let the call connect and start before you get the chance to click "stop camera".

Those are the major points. There are plenty of smaller things that I have jotted down as I went along...

The main ooVoo window appearance can be modified in some very interesting ways. First, there are three ways to view your contact list - "thumbnail", with a large picture, "icon", with a small picture, and "name", with no picture at all. That's pretty nice, especially if you have more than a few contacts, but it gets even better. They also have a "favorites bar" mode, which gets rid of everything in the main window except the contacts, your status, and the history buttons. What a good idea! Unfortunately the contacts are always shown in what looks like "thumbnail" view, even if you have selected a different view in the main window, and the "favorites bar" is always on top of any other windows, which gets irritating very fast, but I assume that things like this will be improved over time, or maybe I am just overlooking some other setting.

The options and controls available in the ooVoo "settings" are not as extensive or sophisticated as in other programs. This might be a good thing in most cases, because it decreases the complexity and reduces the chance of an inexperienced user inadvertently changing something that stops ooVoo from working. But if you have some special case or more complicated situation, those advanced controls are useful. For example, I couldn't find a way to tell ooVoo to automatically answer incoming calls. That is something I use a lot, because I do so much testing between two of my own computers; but I don't know how often it gets used in more "normal" situations, and actually I have to admit that it can take you by surprise. Last weekend I was doing some testing with SightSpeed, and had stopped to make a few notes. My brother called me, and before I even realized what was happening SightSpeed had answered the call and opened up two-way video with him!

When you are in a video call, the controls are once again nice and clear and simple. There are very obvious buttons to stop the camera or mute the microphone or speakers, and drop-down menus to select from different devices for any of these. There are also buttons to send a file, send a text chat message, terminate the call, take a snapshot or invite other contacts to join the video conversation.

The "Video Conversation" window shows both your outgoing video and the incoming video in equal sized windows. I thought it was very nice, and a bit surprising, that if you resized the "Video Conversation" window, both of the windows within it were proportionally resized as well. However, there were a few things about the video display that I thought were missing. I couldn't find a way to tell ooVoo to remove the outgoing video preview. I could do it indirectly, by telling it to enlarge the incoming video window, so it fills the Video Conversation window, but what I was after was just the opposite - remove the outgoing preview, and then make the Video Conversation window that much smaller. I also couldn't find a way to have ooVoo show only the incoming video on the full screen. Even if you click "enlarge video window" on the incoming video, and then expand the enclosing Video Conversation window to full screen, the actual incoming video is still considerably less than the size of the entire display. Of course, with the video resolution ooVoo is sending right now I probably wouldn't want to see the video full screen anyway, but that is likely to change.

By default, ooVoo shows the video windows in "3D mode", which simply means that the incoming and outgoing video windows appear to be slightly angled to each other. It does make for a bit more "fancy" appearance, but turning it off actually allows the video windows to be a bit larger inside the Video Conversation window. I'm still undecided on this feature, because it seems rather trivial to me, but whenever I turn it off, I am surprised at how "flat" the video looks.

I was rather disappointed in the overall audio/video performance of ooVoo. It seemed that there was always a noticeable "lag" in the video, even when I was connecting between two PCs that were sitting side by side on my desk. When I was talking to my brother, who is on the other side of the world and has a rather low speed ADSL connection, the lag was very noticeable, and actually got so bad that it made carrying on a conversation pretty difficult.

The funny part, though, was when I tried a three-way video call, with three PCs in different rooms. The slowest of the three, a Pentium-M 1.6 GHz, could barely keep up; in fact the lag to and from that system was so bad that I could get up from the room where that one was located and walk to the next room, sit down and then watch myself get up and walk away on the video coming from that PC - and then get up and walk back to the slow system, sit down and watch myself walk back into the room! Now, a 1.6 GHz Pentium isn't a great system, but it's not chopped liver, either, so this seems like pretty extreme lag to me. The fastest of the three was a Pentium 3.0 GHz, and it had no trouble at all keeping up, so I will say again, if you are thinking of using ooVoo for video conferencing with more than two participants, make sure that each of the participants has the processing power and the bandwidth to support it. Otherwise, actually carrying on a useful conversation is likely to be very difficult.

So, there you have it. I'm still impressed with the simplicity of ooVoo, and the fact that "it just works". I would certainly recommend it for casual or inexperienced users. I think that experienced users who like to have a lot of control over their audio and video conversations would feel uncomfortably limited or restricted pretty quickly.

jw 28/11/2007

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