Video IM / VoIP - Where are we now?

I started this blog to talk about Video IM and related issues. While I have wandered here and there, I've always come back to that, because it is what I care about.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I started this blog to talk about Video IM and related issues. While I have wandered here and there, I've always come back to that, because it is what I care about. I think it's time to take a fresh look at where we, as users, stand, and what the situation with the four major players is today.

- ooVoo is currently "leading the pack", in my opinion. The new release they made for windows at the beginning of February is really excellent. It is clean, simple, easy to install and even easier to use. It has very good one-to-one video chat, but goes far beyond that in allowing up to six-way video chat. In fact, you can have up to six participants of any kind in a chat, so you can have some on video, some audio-only via ooVoo, and you can even invite some via telephone dial-out! I have personally done all of those; I regularly have three-way video chats with my brothers, I've had others involved with audio-only ooVoo connections, and I've included a dial-out connection just to verify that it worked - and it did, very nicely. They recently released their Mac version, so their position is getting even better. As I mentioned before, they are currently running a promotion offering all phone dial-out calls to the U.S. and Canada for free, regardless of where you are calling from. The offer is good for up to 500 minutes of calls, and continues through the end of March, so you have one more weekend to take advantage of it, try out ooVoo if you aren't already using it, and talk to friends and family for free.

- SightSpeed is still in the same state that it was when I wrote about it last November. I've actually been holding off writing this summary, hoping that they would come out with a new release - I wanted to be fair, because all three of the others have made at least one new release since the beginning of the year. This is not intended as a knock on SightSpeed, their current version is quite good, and very stable, so I am sure that they are not under a lot of pressure to get out a new release. SightSpeed is the only other program which offers multi-way video connection, up to four-way, but only in their paid subscription version. They are the most business-friendly of the group, particularly in their account administration and billing functions.

- The Gizmo Project, now "rebranded" as Gizmo5, is perhaps the most interesting, and most frustrating, of the bunch. It is available on the widest range of interesting/useful hardware by far; they have versions for Windows, Mac and Linux, and a variety of Mobile and Nokia Tablet devices. If you need a program to cover a lot of different platforms, Gizmo5 is definitely worth trying. Unfortunately, I find the Windows version to be considerably less stable than ooVoo or SightSpeed. When it works, it is good - but I've had it hang or crash on me on numerous occasions, and there seems to be some situation it can get into where everything appears normal, and text chat works fine, but you can't make any incoming or outgoing calls - incoming calls seem to ring for the person making the call, but nothing happens on my computer, and outgoing calls even to their "echo test" ring for me, but never get answered. Gizmo has made tremendous strides in their last couple of releases, and I assume that will continue, and these sorts of problems will be worked out in the next couple of releases.

- Skype. Sigh. What can I say? They should be the best, and in my opinion they are the worst. Why? Because the program has gotten substantially worse with each new release for at least the past year, and because to go along with their progressively more buggy program, they have the worst "Customer Support" in the history of mankind. I know that a lot of people have Skype installed, and it works for them, and that's fine, I'm really pleased. But I also know, from personal experience and from reading the Skype User Forums, that there are huge numbers of people who have tremendous problems with Skype, and are often unable to get it working at all. I personally have had Skype cause BSOD crashes of my laptop (NONE of the other three have ever done this), the video has frozen, it has mysteriously changed the audio settings on my laptop, and Skype itself has frozen or crashed both on startup and in mid-call. With the latest version their "presence reporting" system - the indication they give you of whether your contacts are online or not - has become so unreliable that it is totally unusable. I no longer even bother loading Skype on my main laptop, first because it is not worth the trouble, but also because I am not willing to risk what it might do to it. As I mentioned above, both ooVoo and Gizmo have made excellent progress with their recent releases; Skype is moving steadily in the other direction with their releases. The most common "solution" recommended by the "experts" on the Skype User Forum for the past few months is "go back to some previous version of Skype" - never mind that the last two releases were made to fix serious security problems, and the one before that was to fix a major performance problem that had been caused by Skype development carelessly "forgetting" to remove some testing code.

I suppose the best summary and closing for this would be to say what I am actually using now. For most video calls I use ooVoo, because the quality is good, and I am always able to add more participants when I want to. For text chat I use Gizmo because I like the user interface a lot better, its availability on so many platforms means that I can reach a lot more of my friends, and I am also able to use it for my MSN Live and Yahoo accounts. I use SightSpeed for dial-out to everywhere except the U.S. and Canada at moment, because of the ooVoo free promotion. I don't use Skype for anything other than testing; if those tests should ever indicate that they are actually making progress in getting it working properly, and consistently, I may load it on my main laptop and start using it again.

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