Tech Talk - SightSpeed

I have received several public and private requests for more technical information about my first experiences with SightSpeed. Some wanted the gory details about the problems I had, as well.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I have received several public and private requests for more technical information about my first experiences with SightSpeed. Some wanted the gory details about the problems I had, as well. I did feel as if I glossed over some things that I wanted to talk about a bit more, for lack of time and space, so here we go again. Please keep in mind, I have only been working with SightSpeed for a few days, so this is still going to be very incomplete in terms of what SightSpeed can and can't do, and I'm undoubtedly going to be wrong about some of the things that I say, but it won't be the first or the last time for that.

First, the helpful comment posted by Peter Csathy, CEO of SightSpeed, was of course correct. Once into a video call, you can switch to "video only view", and the video window can then be stretched to give you the larger view that I said I wanted. This is very nice indeed, and so obvious it had completely escaped me - I suppose that I had become conditioned by Skype's "fixed size video in a window", so resizing the window didn't occur to me.

Next, also in response to a private query, let me explain just a bit more of what I know about video resolution. The resolution that I mention writing about these video chat programs is what is actually sent between the two computers, it is not necessarily (or generally) the resolution that you see on the screen. The initial SightSpeed video window is considerably smaller than 320x240, so the incoming video is "scaled" to fit in that window; if you resize the video only window, you may increase it to exactly 320x240 (if you are very good or very lucky), in which case you see exactly the video that is being sent, or you may make it larger than that, in which case the incoming video is scaled up to fill the window. In the extreme case, "full screen video" actually takes over your entire display and scales the incoming video to fill it. Most PC displays today are in the range from 1024x768 up to 1600x1200 (or even more), and believe me, 320x240 video scaled up to fill a screen that size is not a pretty sight!

Finally, from the comments, the "conservative approach" and the possibility of an "expert/pro" mode. This is an excellent point, and I think for many users an "expert" mode might be good. But this would have to be an addition, not at the expense of the clarity and conservatism SightSpeed has currently. I was answering technical questions in the Skype forums for some time, and I saw a never-ending stream of questions coming from users who were just confused or overwhelmed by the number of options and configuration settings they were presented with, or by some of the conclusions or actions that Skype would take based on those options.

I was also asked for details about the problems I ran into with SightSpeed. There were only two, and they both turned out not to be SightSpeed problems, or at least not directly. The first was the "choppy audio" problem. It was obvious with the first test call to the SightSpeed "fish tank" that the audio was not good. I assumed then that it was something with the bandwidth, and didn't think much about it until I got the first video call from my brother, and we could hardly understand each other. I then installed SightSpeed on my partner's computer, and was shocked when I tried the test call and the audio was just fine! Her PC is considerably less powerful than mine in pretty much every way (and she forbids me to upgrade it!), so obviously the problem was with my laptop. I worked on it some more, and made no headway. So I removed the Vista disk, and put in one that I had prepared with XP Pro / SP2. I installed SightSpeed, called the fish tank, and the audio was just fine. So obviously the problem is on my laptop, and only when it is running Vista. I wish that I could say that this is the only Vista-related problem that I have!

To me, the important thing about this problem is that it gave me an honest opportunity to check out both SightSpeed technical support and their User Forums. I sent a description of the problem to their technical support email, and got a reply within a few hours. It was obvious from the reply that the person had read and understood my problem, and they made several good suggestions to either try to fix the problem, or gather more information if it didn't get fixed. You can't ask for much more than that from technical support. I also posted a query to the SightSpeed user forums. As I have said before, I was involved in the Skype user forums for some time, and I have seen "the good, the bad and the ugly" there, believe me. There can be a lot of good advice passed around in a forum with competent users and moderators; there can be a lot of bad advice as well, some from people who mean well, but the worst of it is the "ugly" - advice that is incorrect, misleading, confusing or just plain irrelevant. I am pleased to be able to say that the responses I have received in the SightSpeed user forums have been consistently good, and I think that we are on the track to figuring it out, but it's not fixed yet.

The other problem was with firewalls - two problems, actually. The very first time that I ran SightSpeed on my laptop, it worked just fine and connected to the fish tank. The next time I started it up, it said that it couldn't connect to the SightSpeed servers. I use AVG Internet Security, including their Firewall, and it turned out that somehow it had gotten its knickers into a twist over SightSpeed. All I had to do was delete SightSpeed entry from the firewall program list, and the next time I started SightSpeed the AVG Firewall made a new rule, and it has been fine ever since. The second part of this problem is that when I am in my office, the company firewall apparently blocks SightSpeed from connecting also. The symptom is very similar to the previous problem. I'm pretty sure that I just need to find out what ports SightSpeed want to use (I've seen this mentioned in their support web pages), and ask our network administrator to open those ports. Whether he will do that or not is another question...

As usual, this has gone on far too long, and as usual, there is one more thing I would like to say. There has been quite a buzz recently about "High Quality Video" in the IM/chat market. SightSpeed will already do 640x480 resolution at 30 frames/sec, assuming that your camera, PC and communication bandwidth are up to it - and the latter is the key point. They want 1.5 Mb on both ends of the connection in order to do 640x480, and I suspect that kind of bandwidth is not very common yet. But at least they don't try to dictate what kind of camera or computer you have, if your equipment is up to the task, you will get it. I assume that we will see a convergence in the future, as typical bandwidth continues to rise, and SightSpeed continues to improve their video processing so that they require less bandwidth, and hopefully before too long the two ends will meet for a lot more people.

jw 22/11/2007

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