Videophones: What's wrong with this picture?
July 23, 1998
by Robert Lauriston
(IDG) -- Videophones have been a futuristic technology since, well, the coining of the word futuristic. They've appeared in sci-fi novels, world fairs, AT&T's arrogant "You Will" ads, James Bond movies, James Bond parodies--almost everywhere but on retail shelves.
Over the last few years, that's been quietly changing. Stand-alone high-end videoconferencing systems for the meeting room, with large screens (31 inches and up) and hefty price tags ($40,000 and up), are now fairly common in major corporations. The latest buzz, however, comes from PC-based videoconferencing systems that sell for as little as $199. Their prices keep dropping, their quality keeps improving, and most significant, standards have evolved over the past year so that similar products from different vendors can communicate with each other.
To catch up with the state of the art, we tested a half-dozen videoconferencing kits, ranging in price from $199 to $1349 per user. All include a camera, an ISA or PCI video capture board to install in your PC, and the requisite software (Boxtop's IVisit, Intel's VideoPhone, Microsoft's NetMeeting, PictureTel's LiveWare, VDONet's VDOPhone, or White Pine CU-SeeMe). Some kits have a built-in modem or ISDN adapter. All provide a whiteboard utility--a shared window in which both parties can make notes or paste graphics. And all except White Pine's CU-SeeMe Videum VO kit allow application sharing, where you and the person at the other end work on the same document. Using a pair of identical 300-MHz Pentium II desktop PCs with 64MB of RAM running Windows 95 as our test bed, we compared products within each price range (under $350 and over $1000) for ease of setup and image quality. Quality varied as much as price; more often than not, we were disappointed. (See "Our Picks" for details.)
We tested the products by installing a pair of each into our two PCs and connecting over the different lines each kit supported, including standard phone service, ISDN, and LAN connections. For each setup, we sat still for the camera (to allow the most image clarity), then waved our hands to see how much image degradation the motion caused.
The best products produced adequate video at 352 by 288 pixels--a format known as CIF (Common Interchange Format)--running about 15 frames per second. But even at that rate, the video was pretty jerky. The worst were glorified toys--fun to play with but too awful to endure regularly; the images they created looked like smeary slide shows projected on a postage stamp. Current technology forces buyers to choose between resolution and frame rate--between a clear picture that hardly moves and lots of motion with little detail. Because of that limitation, the kits we tested couldn't replace most face-to-face meetings, even over a LAN. The best might appeal to those who need to show faraway clients 3D objects like mechanical or packaging prototypes, but even those products can only marginally convey such crucial details of human interaction as gestures and facial expressions.
Setup is another can of worms. We'd originally planned to test three other products, but we couldn't get them to work at all. One used a Universal Serial Bus camera that was incompatible with the PCI controllers in our test systems. The video capture card on another refused to recognize our test bed's video card. A third kit promised convenience--it's just a camera that connects to the printer port--but nothing the company's support staff suggested would inveigle it into working. Even the six products we managed to get up and running didn't distinguish themselves for ease of installation. Setup was often balky, and sometimes we had trouble figuring out how to make a connection. For example, establishing direct 128-kilobits-per-second ISDN connections using the Intel Business Video Conferencing 4.0 kit was a major chore.
If you're looking for TV quality, forget it. But if we had to buy a PC-based videoconferencing system today, we'd choose one of the Intel kits. The picture quality of the Intel Create & Share Camera Pack (PCI Modem version) blew away the other low-end products, and the package includes the most extras. If you want a family videophone network so parents can chat with their kids, this is the kit to buy. At the high end, the Intel Business Video Conferencing 4.0 kit's good picture quality offsets its quirky software. It works for direct ISDN-to-ISDN connections and over the Internet, so you can use the same product to communicate with telecommuters as well as people in the main and branch office.
Four Paths to Videoconferencing
There are several ways to videoconference from your desktop: directly over the phone line, directly over an ISDN connection, over a LAN, and through the Internet. Each product we tested handles two or three of these connection types; none supports all four. The more bandwidth you have to send the video and audio from one desktop to another, the better the image quality. Phone lines provide the least bandwidth whereas LAN connections offer the most.
The cheapest way to videoconference from your desktop is over the Internet. Get an account with an ISP, buy a camera ($150 and up, with an ISA or PCI capture card), download some conferencing software (such as NetMeeting), and you're ready to go--and without the long-distance charges. The standard for sending and receiving video over the Internet is called H.323. Unfortunately, conferencing over the Net via the phone lines limits you to a 176-by-144-pixel image (also known as Quarter CIF, or QCIF) and only several frames per second--very jerky. We had to make the image as small as the tiniest Post-it note before it started to become clear. Internet traffic jams can degrade that frame rate to zero and garble the audio beyond recognition, too.
One step up in cost and quality is a direct connection between two modems. Because you don't share the line with everyone else on the Net, video quality is often significantly better: We obtained much sharper images that appeared at rates of up to (a still-jerky) 8 fps. A second protocol--H.324--governs modem-to-modem video, and any two devices supporting that standard should be able to talk to each other. The advantage here? Many stand-alone, non–PC-based videophones and videophone attachments for your TV set (such as 8x8's ViaTV Phone) also use H.324, enhancing your chances of being able to directly connect with them. The disadvantage? You may have to pay long-distance charges. Moreover, a conference between two 56-kbps modems tops out at 33.6 kbps; you can achieve the higher rate only when connecting to an ISP.
The third type of connection--a direct link between two ISDN adapters--offers almost four times the bandwidth of a modem-to-modem connection and improves video quality substantially. In the products we tested over ISDN, we got up to 10 fps with a CIF image and up to 15 fps with a QCIF image. Unfortunately, ISDN is a relatively costly option. ISDN videoconferencing kits will set you back more than $1350 per node, including the NT1 adapter needed for many ISDN setups. (NT1 is a box that sits between the ISDN adapter and phone jack.) You'll also have to pay double per-minute phone charges, since a 128-kbps ISDN connection uses two lines; and depending on your phone company, you may pay an extra service premium. Getting ISDN installed can be expensive, too, assuming it's even available in your area. And because the H.320 protocol that ISDN systems use is incompatible with H.324, an ISDN system can't connect directly with a PC using a modem. At least you can connect with some high-end, stand-alone videoconferencing systems--in theory. If your company already bought one of those pricey beasts, ISDN systems might be an economical way to leverage the investment.
Finally, you can videoconference over a LAN. Though ethernets transmit a whopping 10 to 100 megabits per second, this rate is divvied up among the dozens or even hundreds of people on the LAN. The highest video bit rate we observed in our testing was around 300 kbps (your mileage may be lower depending on how accommodating your IS department is about this video stuff). But that's still fast enough for CIF images to appear with just a hint of jaggedness. However, if you want to talk to someone on the company network at a remote location, your videoconference will have to travel over a wide area network connection, which may not be fast enough. If your firm's WAN uses 64-kbps leased lines, forget about it. If it has 1.5-mbps T1 lines, you might get acceptable results. LAN videoconferencing uses the H.323 protocol, so if your LAN is hooked up to the Internet, you can communicate with telecommuters, clients, and suppliers over the Net--as long as IS lets you push video through the firewall.
The Low End: Videoconferencing at Home
The six products we tested fall neatly into two categories: Three cost over $1000 and are good enough to consider for business use; the other three are priced under $350 and provide hobby-quality performance.
At the low end, we reviewed the 3Com Bigpicture Video Phone ($199 per user). It comes with one of those ubiquitous ball-shaped cameras (Philips E-71335) with a built-in microphone, plus a PCI capture card; it's not to be confused with similarly named Bigpicture products that include a modem or work with your TV set rather than your PC. We also looked at White Pine's CU-SeeMe Videum VO kit ($250 per user). It uses the same camera as the 3Com (Philips is the original equipment maker for the Winnov camera) but is bundled with an ISA capture card that, oddly, doesn't use the camera's built-in microphone. Finally, we looked at the Intel Create & Share Camera Pack, which comes in three versions; we tested the top-of-the-line PCI Modem model ($329, or $299 with a current $30 rebate), which matches a combination video capture/56-kbps modem card with an Intel YC66 camera and a microphone. All three low-end products work over Internet dial-up or LAN connections; the Intel Create & Share Camera Pack also supports direct connections between two modems.
Lights, Camera, Not Much Action
Setting up Intel's Create & Share was easy. Its manual has well-illustrated step-by-step instructions for installing the board, and the software installed itself from the bundled CD-ROM. Connected over the Internet, the Create & Share unit managed to display only a 176-by-144-pixel QCIF image at just 2 to 3 fps, and the image quality was poor. We got much better results when we connected directly from one modem to another. In this case, Create & Share displayed 7 to 8 fps, and the picture quality was less wretched: We could make out faces and get a fair idea of what was going on at the other end, though facial expressions and gestures were indistinct.
Our setup experience with White Pine's CU-SeeMe Videum VO kit was a bit bumpier. Instructions are split between two manuals--one for the CU-SeeMe videoconferencing utility and the other for the bundled video capture board and its software--so you have to piece together the setup process on your own. When we connected over the Internet by modem, the White Pine kit staggered along at 1 fps--more slide show than video--though the image itself was good (a bit better than the Intel's). Connecting to the Net over a 128-kbps ISDN line didn't improve the image quality, but its frame rate perked up to 4 fps. The CU-SeeMe software doesn't support H.324, so we couldn't connect modem-to-modem. And while the White Pine product is the only kit here to offer multiuser conferencing without additional hardware or software, you must split the available bandwidth over the multiple sessions--which means each video session could look like an outtake from The Blob. Finally, White Pine's is the only unit that doesn't support application sharing.
The 3Com Bigpicture kit was even more problematic to set up. It comes with three videoconferencing programs: Boxtop's IVisit, VDONet's VDOPhone, and Microsoft's NetMeeting. IVisit's video images were so low-resolution and tiny (half the size of the smallest Post-it note), we didn't finish testing with it. We couldn't get VDOPhone to work, even after calls to 3Com's support. When we finally switched to NetMeeting, the 3Com's image quality was horrible--so pixelated that we could just vaguely make out people's faces, but that was it. Given such a low picture quality, the frame rate hardly matters, but for the record it came in at about 1 fps over modem dial-up and 10 fps over ISDN. Bigpicture is designed to work over a direct modem-to-modem (H.324) link as well, but only through VDOPhone, so we couldn't test this feature.
3Com promotes the Bigpicture package for business as well as consumer use, but even the users that the vendor put us in touch with gave us lackluster feedback. One user hadn't yet convinced his IS department to let him use the kit at the office; another user was less interested in videoconferencing than in the NetMeeting software's application-sharing function.
The High End: Business Videoconferencing
Compared to the low-end videoconferencing kits we reviewed, the three high-end products bear less resemblance to one another. PictureTel's LiveLAN is intended strictly for use on LANs. We also looked at the company's Live200, which supports only direct ISDN-to-ISDN connections in its standard configuration. LiveLAN and Live200 each cost $1100 per user, including microphone and speakers; to connect Live200 to an ISDN jack you'll also need to buy an NT1 box for around $150. The Intel Business Video Conferencing 4.0 kit, which is ready for both ISDN and LAN use out of the box, costs $1349 with an NT1 included, $1195 without. All three systems deliver image quality that is good enough to let you discern the expressions and gestures of the person you're talking with and--if several people are at the other end--to figure out which person is talking.
Out of the box, LiveLAN can connect with other H.323-compatible products on the LAN and (assuming your firewall permits it) over the Internet. Image quality is acceptable, but PictureTel's pixel-filling algorithm often breaks the image up into a grid of chunky fragments. We got a reliable 15 fps in the smoother-motion setting (176 by 144 pixels, or QCIF); switching to sharper-picture mode (352 by 288 pixels, or CIF) made still objects look a bit sharper, but moving objects actually appeared fuzzier.
Installing Live200 was less painful than setting up most ISDN products we've encountered. We just ran the setup program, following the configuration instructions, and it worked the first time. Even the whiteboard and other desktop-sharing tools worked once we entered both phone numbers for the system we were calling. (ISDN adapters have two 64-kbps channels, each with its own phone number.) The picture quality seemed to improve over a single 64-kbps ISDN connection as well, though it produced the same blobby grids as the LiveLAN unit. We got around 12 fps in both smoother-motion and sharper-picture settings. In fact, the two modes were almost indistinguishable, except that the latter caused intermittent problems, such as blank images and low frame rates, that we couldn't resolve even with PictureTel's tech support. The CD-ROM includes Windows 95 drivers so you can use the ISDN adapter for Internet access. But since the software supports only direct ISDN-to-ISDN connections, you can't videoconference over the Internet. A $150 software upgrade lets you convert Live200 to a LiveLAN setup, but doing this disables the ISDN adapter.
Live200 supports remote control of the camera at the far end. If the person you're talking to has a compatible motorized camera, you can pan, zoom, and focus it from your end. LiveLAN works with PictureTel 330 NetConference MultiPoint Server, and both products work with LiveGateway. NetConference can display several conference attendees at the same time on one screen, making it the video equivalent of a conference call on the phone. LiveGateway, an H.323-to-H.320 bridge, lets LiveLAN users conference with Live200 and other H.320-compatible desktop or stand-alone videoconferencing systems.
Video Only Half Bad
We found the Intel Business Video Conferencing 4.0 kit tricky and nonintuitive to set up, and getting the best results using this kit over the LAN took some trial and error. For example, we assumed that the top, 400-kbps bandwidth setting would yield the best results, but actually the picture looked much better at 200 kbps.
Once we got things tuned up, the Intel package produced the best images among the kits evaluated. Picture quality wasn't great by TV standards, and there was some pixelation, but the unit clearly outclassed either PictureTel product. Over direct ISDN connections (H.320), we got about 15 fps using the default smoother-motion (QCIF) setting--fast enough that we couldn't perceive individual frames. When we switched to sharper-picture (CIF) mode, the frame rate dropped to about 10 fps, but the image showed greater detail. Over our LAN, we got similar frame rates but even more detail; the CIF image actually approached TV quality. The Intel kit's image quality over the Internet was much worse, but it was still far superior to what we saw from any of the low-end products.
Though picture quality was high, Intel's software was at times a little flaky. For example, after hanging up we sometimes had to reboot before we could make another call. Other times, text in dialog boxes and start-menu buttons disappeared. Eventually we just got in the habit of rebooting every time we wanted to make another call--a real drag if you have to make a lot of video calls.
Desktop Videoconferencing: Still Not Ready For Prime Time
Our tests indicate that the six products we tested push current PCs and Windows 95 beyond their limits. Even our relatively high-end test systems often fell short on horsepower. The products require a mind-boggling number of drivers and other software components.
So is desktop video good enough for business? "That depends on your business and your definition of 'good enough,'" says IDC analyst Ed Buckingham. "A couple of people in our office have the very low-end tools. Sure, it's a 2-inch image and not very good quality, but to the extent you can actually see who's in the room when having a meeting, it seems to be good enough." On the other hand, the vendors themselves don't seem ready to bet their businesses on their own products: "I keep asking the vendors to set me up with a videoconference and we'll use the technology to talk about the technology," continues Buckingham, "but none of them have been willing."
Dataquest analyst Sujata Ramnarayan is even more skeptical. The low-end Internet- and modem-based systems are "really not very good at this time," she says. "Consumers might buy them on impulse because they look cute." And as for ISDN? "A lot of times, calls are not very successful--they don't go through," says Ramnarayan. "The cost-versus-quality ratio is not good enough unless you're in particular industries where you can justify the value. For example, say something goes wrong with the equipment in a manufacturing plant, and the technician can't get there for a day or two. If a videoconferencing system can cut repair time by a day or two, you're willing to make a trade-off."
Still, telecommuters might benefit from some of the high-end products. An ISDN connection between your home office and the remote access server on your firm's LAN supplies enough bandwidth to meet the minimum requirement for videoconferencing. Images are good enough that you can focus on what the people at the other end are saying instead of how awful their images look and how disembodied their voices sound. In many cases the per-minute connect charges will be local rather than long-distance, and your LAN won't need any extra software or hardware beyond the ISDN remote-access link.
The early LAN videoconferencing adopters we interviewed work at big organizations with large campuses and at geographically dispersed sites with fast WAN connections (T1 or faster). Many users deal with applications in which visuals are crucial; they include engineers collaborating on tractor-part designs and specialists from a big-city medical center who must sit in on examinations in suburban satellite clinics.
And what about the low-end products? All three kits can save video to AVI files and single frames as bitmaps, either from the bundled camera or from another source like a camcorder. A couple of business users we spoke with say they regularly use their kits to capture images to paste into word processing documents. Otherwise, if you want to send images over the wires, you're better off with e-mail and a scanner.
Looking into the Future
Higher-bandwidth connections like DSL, cable modems, and 384-kbps ISDN should make desktop videoconferencing more practical in the next year or two. Also, for a higher monthly fee, ISPs will likely provide priority Internet service, where users can access less-congested segments of the network. But whether you'll actually want a PC videoconferencing system is another matter. Placing videophone calls might make you feel like James Bond in the 21st century. But having that unblinking eye staring at you all day could make you feel like Winston Smith in 1984.
Robert Lauriston is a writer who lives in Berkeley, California.
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