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Google testing higher-quality video chat in Gmail

Google has released an updated version of its video chatting service found in Gmail, iGoogle, and Orkut, that's bigger and better-looking than the one that came before it.

Updated at 2:00 p.m. with additional information from Google.

Google has added a new option in the labs section of Gmail that lets users pump up the quality in video chats.

The new setting, dubbed "video chat enhancements," ups not only the size of the video chat window, but its resolution too. The difference in size between the old and the new is considerable, both in the window of the person you're talking to, and the preview of your Webcam that appears in the bottom right-hand corner.

Here's a before and after:

Video chat in Gmail.
On the left is the older, standard video chat in Gmail. On the right is the newer, high-quality feed, which is properly widescreen. Click to see in its native resolution. Screenshots by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Here also is a taste of the difference in the quality, courtesy of Google:

A before and after of Google's video chat

Besides Gmail, the enhanced video chat feature works in iGoogle and Orkut.

In its blog post announcing the feature, Google says that the enhanced version of the chat "frees up valuable resources on your computer" during conversations. It does this by making use of hardware-accelerated video decoding to take some of the work off a user's computer processor--the same thing Adobe's been baking into the latest versions of its Flash video player.

In a chat with CNET, Christopher Vander Mey, a senior product manager at Google said that the decoding itself is still software based, though the new version uses hardware acceleration for the rendering. "We use a form of H.264 codec called scalable video coding (SVC)," he said. "Instead of sending a single image for each frame, it sends layers of images. So a single picture is composed of four lower quality images composited together to make a high-quality image." Vander Mey explained that this technique results in a very good looking video that can adjust more gracefully depending on the user's bandwidth.

On that note, the newer version of the video chat technology can take better advantage of a user's connection to push video all the way up to 640x480 (VGA) resolution. "It will work pretty well from 256 kilobits per second up to 1 megabyte per second," Vander Mey said. "We were going up to 500kb in the previous version." That extra bandwidth and aforementioned codec change are the two things that have made the higher-resolution video possible.

Vander Mey also echoed a similar statement to Gmail's product manager, Todd Jackson, who last January told CNET that the video architecture was capable of HD video, though mostly dependent on bandwidth speeds going up. "We want to see higher and higher resolutions available," Vander Mey said.

In May, Google acquired Global IP Solutions for $68.2 million for its Internet telephony and videoconferencing efforts, though Vander Mey said that the enhanced version of the video chat was not using any specific technologies from that pick-up. "The Google plug-in API that enables this to work is some software from our O3D project on" Google launched O3D early last year in a bid to beef up what Web apps could do by making use of local hardware. "That enables us to provide much higher quality," said Vander Mey.

For Linux users, the higher-quality video is currently the default; otherwise, using the new feature requires that both parties have it enabled from within Gmail's labs settings, though according to Vander Mey it won't be that way forever. "Ultimately this will be available to all our customers as the default," he said.