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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 Mac screen name; or a $99 per-year .Mac account. Toss in Apple's new $149 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.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, unless you upgrade to the $129 OS X 10.3 Panther. Using it also requires either a free AOL Instant Messenger account; a free, iChat-only .
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 e-mail 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.
If the people on your buddy list are able to videoconference, you'll see a green video icon beside their name.
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 decidedly a nontechie, 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.
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; categorize your buddies into groups; save your chat transcripts (though 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 center, so that the 4x3 aspect ratio of the video image doesn't look distorted on wide screens.
When you videoconference with iChat AV, you not only get a large image of the person you're chatting with, but a smaller inset window with your own image.
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.
With iChat AV, you can easily customize your chat icon. Open the Buddy Picture window by selecting the current icon in your buddy list and choosing Edit picture, drag an image into the window, and use the onscreen marks to crop it.
We tested iChat AV with the iSight, Apple's new desktop video camera. This attractively designed cam features autofocus, a built-in noise suppression microphone, a 1/4-inch color CCD image sensor, and a FireWire connection; it can also produce 640x480 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 ($149) 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.
iChat AV is a breeze 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 were 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.
Use the Connection Doctor, located under iChat's Video pull-down menu, to gauge your iChat connection. We got 20 frames per second with a cable connection--the maximum for that type--but faster lines get the top rate of 30fps.
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.
iChat AV is beta software, so don't expect much in the way of support. Apple has a &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Einfo%2Eapple%2Ecom%2Fusen%2Fichat%2F" target="_blank">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.