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Mac VoIP/Video tools: new features just keep comin'

With all the hoopla surrounding video in recent weeks, thanks to the video-centric Fall VON trade-show in Boston, it's no surprise that the folks making VoIP communications tools for the Mac have embraced video-conferencing. Since I did a head-to-head comparison of the four major VoIP communication tools for Macworld back in July, so much has changed. The video has gotten better and easier--so easy, in fact, that MTV's Total Request Live has made one of these sweet tools a part of its regular broadcast arsenal, allowing viewers of the show to interact with via TRL's famous video wall--and it's not Skype.

All of these tools are free downloads, and all of these tools have been around a while.
Yahoo Messenger 3.0

The three packages that have undergone improvements since I last examined them are Yahoo! Messenger, Sightspeed, and Skype. But I'll be honest--the changes to Yahoo! Messenger, now at version 3.0 for the Mac, are superficial at best. There's still no VoIP for Internet voice calling, there's still no voice conferencing, and while there's video, Y! Messenger can't be taken seriously until it adds audio.

I suspect this problem has its roots in Yahoo's historic use of a Windows-only audio coder that hasn't, after close to a decade of Yahoo I.M.'s existence, been made available on the Mac. If Yahoo wants to have a shot at the early adopter crowd, they've GOT to bring the Mac version up to speed. As it is now, the most visible change in Y! Messenger 3.0 is its updated look and feel, which is now more Tiger-like: greyscale main window, better icons, etc.

Though Yahoo has added support for sending text I.M.s to MSN users, Mac users won't be able to place Mac-to-phone calls with their version of Messenger either. Now, I and others have been pretty loud with Yahoo about getting these issues straightened out, but it seems like there must be a pretty compelling reason why they haven't feature-synced Mac and Win versions of Messenger. Even iChat kicks Messenger in the butt, and "that ain't sayin' a whole lot".

Skype 2.0 (Beta)

Skype for the Mac has improved by leaps and bounds. It's certainly the most popular Mac-based VoIP tool, with upwards of 6 million (Mac and Windows) users online at a time. I still use Skype more often than the other tools that are available, and Skype's large slice of the user pie is why. With Skype for the Mac (pictured at the top of this article), a lot has changed since July when I last reviewed it:

  • All outbound Mac-to-phone calls are free until the end of the year. (I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes a permanent fixture of Skyping, though.)
  • The latest Skype beta, version, now offers video conferencing which is on par with the Windows version. I've done a few video calls with Windows users of the product, and have had good results. I do occasionally have issues communicating with certain Windows users (a reality that persists with or without Skype), and has crashed on me a few times. But hey, I guess that's why they call it a beta. For those interested, the current production version of Skype for the Mac is 1.5, it does not have video.
  • The look and feel of the buddy list has been improved, with "mood messages" and action buttons now appearing in an auto-expanding line where each contact sits in the list. Much nicer than clumping it all into the toolbar.
  • Skype is now a universal binary, which increases performance on Intel-based Macs like my Macbook.

Sightspeed 5.0

Despite all of Skype's advances, Sightspeed is increasingly the Mac video-conferencing tool of choice. While I do have some nits with the way the Sightspeed user interface is laid out, these complaints are easily forgive. The folks at Sightspeed are two steps ahead of their competitors in many respects:

  • Unlike Skype, Sightspeed is a standards-based product which uses SIP for setting up and tearing down calls. This means that it may be possible to use Sightspeed with other services at some point.
  • Sightspeed allows Mac-to-phone calling in its most current release, version 5.
  • Sightspeed offers a driver solution for Windows that allows you to remotely view your television programming from anywhere on the Internet. So, you could be sitting in Venice sipping Bavarian suds while watching the newest episode of Lost via your Windows Media edition PC (sorry guys, this is a PC-only feature). Hopefully, the Sightspeed guys have already had a chat or two with the brains behind EyeTV so we can get this functionality added to the Macintosh version.
  • The video-quality on Sightspeed is adaptive to the conditions of your broadband link, and the synchronization between audio and video is better on Sightspeed than on any of the other Mac video-conferencing tools. No more mouthing the words you say four seconds after you say them. This alone makes Sightspeed a better candidate for serious use than Skype or iChat.
  • While Sightspeed supports video-conferencing, it does limit you to four participants at a time. This seems to be par for the course. But I'd really like to see somebody support ten or twelve participants. I suspect this limit will eventually disappear.
  • Sightspeed videomail is a feature that can be used for video-blogging, or "vlogging"--you record the video on Sightspeed and it gets posted to the net for you to link to on your blog. Easy, simple, and fast. The videomail feature is also used to record messages if you're trying to get ahold of your Sightspeed contacts while they're offline.
So, the Mac offerings for VoIP and video communications are truly exceptional--and the most exceptional of those Sightspeed, is probably the one I would try first, if I were just getting into this stuff.

Tags: freeware, sightspeed, skype, video, videoconferencing, voip