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Posted at 9:50 AM ET, 12/21/2010

Video-calling review: Xbox's Video Kinect and the Logitech Revue's Vid

By Rob Pegoraro

Science fiction gets reals with two of the gadgets I've tried recently, which let you turn your HDTV into a video phone.

Why would you want to do such a thing? Moving your video calling from a webcam-equipped computer to the largest screen in your house makes it easy for multiple people to sit in on the call and lets them park themselves in what's usually the comfiest seating in the house.


Why would you not want to do such a thing?

You might have results as disappointing as my tests of Microsoft's Xbox Video Kinect calling and Logitech's Vid add-on to its Revue Google TV receiver.

Video Kinect doesn't require any extra hardware beyond the $149.99 Kinect itself (see my review of the Kinect as a game controller), but it does demand a $59.9/year Xbox Live Gold subscription.

You can call another Kinect-equipped computer or a Mac or Windows machine running Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger (Windows) or Messenger for Mac instant-messaging software.

The major disappointment here was the horrendous quality of the video, considering that I had about 5 million bits per second of upstream bandwidth at each end of the test. The footage looked unmistakably pixelated. My hand easily blurred when I moved it across the screen, but even a static scene looked out of focus. And on a 40-inch HDTV, those compression artifacts were that much more obvious.

Xbox gamers aren't impressed with the results, either.

I had no trouble placing a test call from a Kinect-equipped Xbox to a Dell netbook, but things didn't work well in the other direction. Sometimes Windows Live Messenger failed to detect the computer's built-in webcam and therefore wouldn't allow me to place an outgoing video call. On another occasion, only seconds after ending a video call from Xbox to the laptop, Xbox informed me that "None of your contacts are available to join a Video Call." Another time, the Xbox responded to my attempt to answer a video call by flipping me over to a text chat.

It's cool, if not outright spooky, to have the Kinect camera pan to follow you around the room, using Kinect's face-tracking software. But the rest of this package makes for a lot of work.

Then there's Logitech's Vid, which requires buying its $149.99 TV Cam for its $249.99 Revue. I found Logitech's Google TV receiver weak as a video device, and Vid isn't much better as a picture phone.

This theoretically high-end camera, with a wide-angle lens and stereo microphones, yielded video quality not much better than Video Kinect's. Logitech's system appears unable to scale up its resolution, even if you throw bandwidth at it.

But Vid's biggest weakness is its limitation to Logitech's own Vid software. Although it's a free download for Windows XP, Vista and 7, as well as Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 (Intel processors only), the odds are most would-be calling parties have never heard of it.

Vid could have the best video quality ever seen on the Internet, and it would still be held back by the requirement that everybody you call must open a new account and install a new program. Logitech would do much better to build in support for a more widely used video-calling system... say, perhaps, the one Google added to Gmail two years ago.

What other options do you have for using an HDTV as a video phone?

Cisco's Umi "telepresence" system promises the high-definition video you'd expect on an HDTV. But at $599 -- plus service starting at $21.99 a month -- it's priced completely out of whack for the mass market.

Samsung, Panasonic and other TV manufacturers now ship HDTVs with support for Skype, if you plug in the right webcam. That would at least get around the issue of friends and family not having the right software or service to join the call.

Unfortunately, I haven't tried those models myself. Would anybody care to offer a report on their own experience with them? If not, what's your solution for video calling from the couch?

By Rob Pegoraro  | December 21, 2010; 9:50 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets, Video  
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About a year ago I bought a $200 Acer Aspire Revo net top computer (slow Intel Atom processor, but with an NVIDIA ION video processor and HDMI output), specifically for doing video calling from the living room. An old analog camcorder (with a remote, so I can zoom without having to walk over to the camera), hooked up to the computer using an also-old Dazzle DVC-80 analog video to USB converter, worked out quite well! I have to run free SplitCam software because Skype doesn't recognize the DVC-80. We've been very happy with this setup. Unfortunately, a recent update either to Windows or Skype has caused SplitCam to no longer work with it, and I haven't had a chance to fix it.

The good thing here is that Skype is a proven service, and the camcorder has superior optics and allows either a wide or close-up view. It isn't HD, of course, but a new HD camera with remote could potentially do the job better than either the Video Kinect or the Revue.

Posted by: alanl98 | December 21, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

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