iChat, iSight a Good Team

Apple's iChat AV instant messaging software and iSight compact digital camera team up to provide innovative videoconferencing.

Apple Computer Inc.s iChat AV instant messaging software, and the companys concurrently introduced iSight compact digital camera, demonstrate Apples usual synthesis of top-to-bottom platform integration, novel and intelligent industrial design, and an intuitive user experience that encourages the adoption of new capabilities.

The cameras physical design is almost at the theoretical limit of simplicity, little more than a cylinder with a lens at one end and an integrally swivel-mounted FireWire connector tucked into the underside. The perforated housing is a cosmetic fit with Apples new G5 machines but is more than a matter of appearance: The camera got noticeably warm during use.

Twisting the ring around the lens engages an internal lens cap, whose white color makes it impossible to overlook, and also disables the camera; mechanical clips, included in the package along with a FireWire cable, enclose the FireWire connector to provide a positive but easily disengaged lock on any of the three provided clear-plastic mounting brackets.

We tested the iSight camera with Apples iChat AV messaging application and with EvoCam 3.1 software from Evological. Apples own iMovie did not recognize the camera, but EvoCam and many other applications can use the iSight for still-image and motion-capture tasks. Color balance was good under varied lighting, more so than with many higher-priced digital cameras, and the automatic focus never gave me cause for complaint.

In videoconference sessions with digital subscriber line connections at both ends, we achieved about the quality of video that one might expect from a space shuttle transmission. When one end of the connection had T-1 bandwidth, the frame rate for that user automatically jumped from 15 to 20 per second with noticeably greater clarity and picture stability; the audio time lag fell from about 2 seconds to 1. Audio level and quality with the iSights integral microphone were acceptable. We easily connected with users of both Apples .mac and AOL messaging accounts.

Apple promotes the ease of mounting the iSight camera for a direct face-on view of the speaker, and thats not a bad thing, but in practice, I expect that most people will be looking at the screen to watch the face of the person with whom theyre speaking.

At $149, the iSight is not an impulse purchase, but its compact and no-fuss design lend it to a number of digital imaging tasks—including, but by no means limited to, using it with the free-download public beta of iChat AV.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_ coffee@ziffdavis.com.