Tech Talk - Video IM Tips and Tricks

As usual with my "Tech Talk", this will be a somewhat more technically detailed description of some things to do, to avoid, or to simply keep in mind to avoid problems or to find them when they arise. This one is going to concentrate on hardware, and the next will be about software.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

As usual with my "Tech Talk", this will be a somewhat more technically detailed description of some things to do, to avoid, or to simply keep in mind to avoid problems or to find them when they arise. This one is going to concentrate on hardware, and the next will be about software.

First, cameras. The vast majority of Video IM users have USB-connected webcams. Always remember that these cameras should be connected directly to the computer, not through a USB hub. Some camera manufacturers are very clear about this - Logitech, for example, goes so far as to say don't even use a USB extension cable - while others don't say anything at all. But my experience has been very clear, cameras connected to USB hubs are very frequently a problem, so it is best avoided.

Also give some consideration to the number and type of USB devices you have connected. A USB connection is just what the name says - a BUS, and as such it has some maximum amount of data transmission capacity. Try to avoid having other high data rate peripherals connected via USB. The most common example of this that causes problems is having your internet connection via a USB, either a WiFi adapter or cable modem, for example.

There are other less extreme examples of USB loading that you can avoid, as well. I have seen situations on my older laptop where I could improve video call quality by changing from a USB microphone and USB speakers, or a USB headset, to a headset plugged directly into the laptop mic/speaker audio jacks. Actually, while I am on the subject of headsets, I got lucky with one of the first that I bought, it has worked out extremely well for me. It is a Logitech Premium Notebook Headset, and it comes with an adapter so that I can connect it either via mic/speaker jacks or USB.

Try to avoid other high-volume internet activities when you are in a video call. While I was testing SightSpeed with my brothers last weekend, I was admiring how good the video quality was when my partner sent an email with several large pictures attached. My video call went straight out the window - first the picture froze, blocked and jumped and the audio went choppy, and then when SightSpeed noticed the dramatically lower bandwidth available it reduced the video resolution from 320x240 to 128x96! Of course, this was a rather extreme case, because not only are we sharing the internet connection, but at that time we were both running wireless connections from the same router.

That brings me to the last topic for today, the internet connection. As I have said, for these Video IM programs, it needs to be a broadband connection, but that still leaves some "wriggle room" over what qualifies as "broadband". Wikipedia says that a broadband connection should be a minimum of 256kB download speed, but then avoids the issue of upload speed altogether, saying only that some connections, such as ADSL, have different (slower) upload than download speeds. Well, DUH! That's the "A" in "ADSL" - "Asynchronous", meaning that the speed is different in each direction. For our purposes, the upload speed is likely to be just as important as the download speed, because we are trying to send video as well as receive it. That is why you have to be careful about low cost (implying low speed) connections such as my brother has in Atlanta; the 512k download speed qualifies it as "broadband", but the 128k upload speed can be a problem for Video IM programs.

The three programs I have looked at so far in this blog have different requirements and recommendations, and different degrees of success or failure at low speeds. SightSpeed actually does pretty well on a 128k upload connection. As I said, the video and audio with my brother were certainly acceptable. We did notice that it would get overloaded occasionally, especially if he started moving around or waving his arms (which increases the volume of video data), but by and large it was more than acceptable. From what I have heard from both the CEO and CTO of SightSpeed, they seem to be quite proud of the fact that it works pretty well at only 128k, and justifiably so in my opinion. The ooVoo web page only says that they require a "Broadband Connection", but I have been told by their Director of Marketing that they expect to have a minimum upload speed of 256kB, and my tests confirm that. Skype says on their web page that they recommend a minimum of 384 kB for either normal or high quality video. I was, as usual, unable to get Skype working properly in my tests with my brother - we had all sorts of problems with freezing video, dropped connections and the like, but I don't know whether this was because of his relatively slow ADSL connection, or if it was just typical Skype unpredictability. I considered trying to contact Skype Support for advice or information, but I don't have FOUR DAYS to wait for even the first totally inane reply, so I just gave up on it.

If you have a wireless (WiFi) connection on your computer, there are a couple more things to be careful about. If you have an older laptop, wireless adapter or router, they might still be using the older "B" wireless standard, which is considered quite slow today. It might be worthwhile to upgrade to "G" or "N". Start by checking each component of your wireless equipment. You might find that you already have a Wireless-G router, but only a Wireless-B adapter in your computer. In that case, for the relatively small cost of a new wireless adapter, you can dramatically increase your connection speed. If you decide to upgrade all of your equipment, I would recommend that you go to Wireless-N now, and stay away from the vendor-proprietary "Speed Enhanced" or "Range Enhanced" equipment. Not only do you lock yourself into one vendor if you use that, you also leave yourself open to being "orphaned", as I was, if the vendor decides not to continue development, make Vista drivers, or whatever.

Finally, if you are using a wireless internet connection and you seem to have interruptions, distortion or even dropped connections every minute or so, you might be running into problems with the Windows XP "Wireless Zero Configuration Utility". Basically what this service does is periodically look around for a "better" wireless connection than the one you currently have. That search and evaluation can interfere with smooth wireless operation. If you are sitting still and connected to your own router, you probably don't want or need for it to continuously look for something better, so you could go to the Windows Services control, find "Wireless Zero Configuration" (near the bottom), and Stop it.

jw 13/12/2007

Editorial standards