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iChat AV Beta

  • Editors' rating
    7.0 Very good

Pros

  • Zero configuration
  • makes videoconferencing easy for non-technical users
  • reduces background noise and echo in conversations.

Cons

  • Audio failed to work properly in some of our tests
  • won't record video chats
  • no Windows version
  • no way to videoconference with more than one person
  • requires an AOL or .Mac account and a FireWire-only camera.

With iChat AV Beta, Apple brings one-step video and audio to its still-new instant-messaging tool. In beta form, iChat's performance is spotty, but it's easier to use and configure than the video-enabled MSN Messenger 6.0 public beta and better implemented than the video chat in Yahoo Messenger (both are for Windows only). iChat AV is a pleasure to use while it's free, but Apple plans to charge $29 for it when the current beta expires on December 31 2003 (UK pricing TBA), unless you upgrade to the £99 (inc. VAT) OS X 10.3 Panther. Using it also requires either a free AOL Instant Messenger account; a free, iChat-only .Mac screen name; or a £69 per-year .Mac account. Toss in Apple's new £119 (inc. VAT) iSight FireWire camera (which isn't specifically required, although some brand of FireWire cam is), and iChat AV is starting to look like an expensive corporate tool.

Setp & installation
If only all installations were this simple. To install iChat AV, simply download the program (the biggest annoyance here is Apple's insistence that you provide your first and last name and email address before downloading), click to install it, input your AIM or .Mac account information and you're done. There's nothing to configure. If you have Apple's new iSight camera, you simply plug it in once you've downloaded iChat AV, and the program automatically launches and instantly configures the video capabilities as well. iChat AV connects to the AOL Instant Messenger network, as it did in version 1.0, so chatters can talk to anyone with an AIM account--but not to any other IM services, alas. So far, iChat AV can perform only Mac-to-Mac video chatting, and it works only with a FireWire video camera, a limitation we find somewhat odd (the MSN Messenger 6.0 beta works swimmingly with a regular old USB cam). Incoming requests for video chat sound like a gently ringing phone; you can click to accept or deny -- and you'll still get a video preview. Even if you're a non-techie, iChat AV is blissfully simple to use, and although we don't normally recommend installing beta software, the iChat AV menu features an option to revert to the previous version, iChat 1.0.

Features
iChat AV, like the previous version, offers all the basic instant-messaging (IM) features we've come to expect: you can send and receive files; initiate group chats; categorise your friends into groups; save your chat transcripts (although not by default); and tweak privacy settings to allow or ignore specific contacts, everyone, no one or only those on your contact list. Beyond basic IM, iChat AV lets you video chat with another user, as long as you both have high-speed connections. You can also chat via audio or text over dial-up as well as broadband. When you video chat, you see not only the other person, but a smaller window displaying your own image, so you can see if you're in the frame. Both images are resizable, and you can even expand iChat AV to full-screen mode -- an excellent trick for meetings, for example. iChat AV uses anamorphic scaling, meaning the image scales more at the edges than at the centre, so that the 4:3 aspect ratio of the video image doesn't look distorted on wide screens. As of now, iChat AV supports AV conferencing only between two people -- you can't add a third person to an existing audio or video chat, although you can do so in a text chat. Our only other video gripe: iChat AV doesn't offer an option to record your video transmissions, but we hope it will in the future -- perhaps with help from iMovie. We tested iChat AV with the iSight, Apple's new desktop video camera. This attractively designed camera features autofocus, a built-in noise suppression microphone, a 1/4in. colour CCD image sensor, and a FireWire connection; it can also produce 640 by 480 pixel images at up to 30 frames per second (fps). It offered clear, only slightly grainy images in our tests, although quality depends heavily on your connection speed. The price (£119 inc. VAT) seems steep when compared with cams such as the iBot, but no current product offers all the features of the iSight. You don't need the iSight to use iChat AV -- any FireWire camcorder and a microphone will suffice -- but iSight, for now, works only with iChat AV.

Performance
iChat AV is simple to set up and use, but we did experience a few glitches in our testing (this is, after all, beta software). Twice we were able to get video connections to other iChat users, but not audio -- so we could see but not hear each other. Oddly enough, all three of our testers was able to video chat successfully with Apple representatives, so it's difficult to tell what type of local or network glitch was occurring. Apple does warn that certain firewall configurations may prevent a video connection, as well. When iChat and iSight do work correctly, they're a pleasure to use. Despite a very slight delay in transmission, the video and audio sync up nicely, and the echo suppression built into iChat AV eliminates most, but not all, of the echo that inevitably occurs with video chat.

Service & support
iChat AV is beta software, so don't expect much in the way of support. Apple has a useful page of technical documents online if you need information on topics such as getting around firewalls. But mostly Apple wants your help: a feedback link in iChat lets you submit errors and feature requests to the developers.

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