Requirements: 600 MHz G3, Mac OS X 10.2.5, iChat AV
Recommended: fast Internet connection
It suddenly became a dilemma. My Mac-using protégé, Clayton Spayer, and I finally had a chance to meet up after a year of online conversations. Clayton lives in the Central Illinois Valley, and I live in Southern California. Due to a wonderful happenstance, we needed a way to enhance the communication between our homes and we needed to do so quite quickly. The Apple iSight has proven to be an exciting solution to our sudden dilemma.
Clayton and I became acquainted in The Mac Observer forums. He’s a high school student and I’m a former technology director at an LA-area prep school. We’d spend hours discussing Macs via Apple’s iChat over AIM. This worked well because all we really needed were text and voice capabilities to talk about Macs. But this summer an extraordinary thing happened that challenges reason and still stuns the senses.
Call it fate, destiny, or even divine providence; Clayton and I met one another in person in an against-the-odds encounter that has changed both of our lives and the lives of our families. Clayton and his mother, Sue, were heading west this summer to spend time with family members in California. I had plans to take my kids to visit family in Connecticut. Unaware of each other’s travel itineraries, we planned to meet up at the Apple Store at The Grove during the week I knew he’d be in the LA area. The rendezvous at the Apple Store didn’t happen.
Instead I met him, he met me, I met her, and she met me as we all boarded the same Amtrak train from LA to Chicago. Unknown at first to all members of the traveling parties, Clayton and Sue and me and my kids were scheduled on the same train—a happenstance that defies the odds. Clayton and Sue were on their way home to Illinois while my kids and I were traveling east from Los Angeles through Chicago to New York.
I was bewildered when Clayton told me his travel itinerary and I checked his train reservations against my own. Why in Heaven and on Earth had events conspired to bring about this encounter? I soon discovered the answer. It was that moment when Sue and I first gazed at one another upon meeting at the train station in Los Angeles. Yes, we were riding on a train, but we both felt like we had just been run over by one too. It’s that maybe once-in-a-lifetime encounter when one astonishingly meets a soul mate.
After two days together on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief as it rambled across the desert, mountains, and plains, even the 10,000 cell phone and land-line minutes of conversation between us didn’t seem like enough contact to comfortably close the 2,000-mile gap between Burbank and the Illinois Central Valley. We needed more and we wanted more. It’s one thing to talk; it’s another thing to be able to look at one another while we communicate.
Enter the Apple iSight. I don’t know who thought of it first. It might have been Clayton. After all, he wanted one and it might be a chance to get his mom off his cell phone. On weekends after Sue’s cell phone battery is exhausted from our seemingly constant conversations, she grabs his cell phone until her phone’s battery has a chance to recharge. No matter who had the idea first, we both trekked to our nearest Apple Store on the same Friday night. It took me all of 20 minutes to arrive at the Glendale Apple Store. I was all set up and waiting when they returned from their four-hour round trip to the Oak Brook Apple Store.
The iSight took no more than ten minutes to set up. That includes time opening the box and staring curiously at the three stands included in the package. I use a 15" Titanium PowerBook so the choice of stands was an easy one. One of the stands is designed to fit on the TiBook’s sleek display enclosure. The package also includes a plastic tube to store the iSight when it’s not in use, and it comes with all the FireWire cables and adapters needed for easy setup and operation. There’s no power adapter needed because the iSight is powered by the Mac’s FireWire port. The diminutive video camera is only about 3 1/2 inches long and less than 1 1/2 inches wide, so it sits unobtrusively on any of the included mounts.
My First Impressions
OK, so it’s not the same thing as being there. No way. No how. But at least with the iSight we can look at one another when we talk. I can dispose of one piece of geek paraphernalia during our conversations—my alien-style cell phone headset. Thanks to the iSight’s video capabilities I’m no longer at a loss to keep myself visually occupied during conversations. The downside is that the other party can tell when they’ve lost your attention if even for a moment. I can no longer surf over to a Mac Web site or read the editor’s beta copy of ATPM while engaged in conversation without being nabbed. Not that I’d do that any way. Really, no I wouldn’t! Not ever!
The $149 price tag for the latest Mac gadget pays for itself quickly. No more watching the clock and worrying about long distance charges per minute or awkwardly arranging call times to be sure conversations start during the “unlimited” hours on the respective cell plans. Conversations are carried over the Internet via iChat AV. Considering the two-hour time difference between Burbank and the Illinois Central Valley, this has allowed us to converse before 11 PM Central Time without concern for cost.
The iSight works in conjunction with Apple’s iChat AV software currently in beta release. The first commercial version of the product will be included in the OS X Panther upgrade.
Curiously, iChat AV puts a small window of one’s self inside the displayed window of your iSight partner. Though the self-view window can be sized and moved around inside the larger window, it still takes away from what can be seen of the other party. To my knowledge this small window can’t be turned off. In my opinion users should be given the option to turn it off.
iChat AV can be used for one-way video. Hooking up a digital video cam or iSight to your Mac allows one to send digital video to other iChat AV users. But that’s not nearly as much fun as a two-way video conversation.
Depending on processor and Internet connection speeds, video quality may demand that the iSight window remain small. There is an option to display the image full-screen, but one pays a price because there is a significant loss of quality when that option is selected. The user can resize the window from the default 352 x 288 pixels to just about any dimension on the screen. But in general, the smaller the window size the better the video image quality.
Again, performance will vary based on processor and Internet connection speeds. Dialup users are not able to use this product. However, with a powerful processor and fast Internet connection, iSight will deliver up to 30 frames per second (fps) of 24-bit color digital video. The lens auto-focuses to provide the sharpest picture possible.
I admit it. I’m enamored with the iSight for several different reasons. But how might a high-school-age Mac user describe the product?
“Hello, Mister Spayer!” someone says to me from behind as I am walking around Los Angeles Union Station. It’s Robert Leitao. From that point on, life has changed drastically for my mom and me. As you can tell from Robert’s elaborations on our meeting, things are happening quickly and have brought about many changes in our lives for the better.
We needed another form of communication along with the phone. After all, Robert lives 2,000 miles away. I suggested we purchase iSights for each of our homes. The iSight is known as the “eyes and ears of iChat AV.” We both researched the product and determined that it made an ideal communications solution. In another strange twist, Robert had upgraded to DSL from dialup the week before we had the first iSight conversation. Because the iSight requires a high-speed Internet connection, this made video communication between our homes possible.
As Robert mentioned, we both made our way to an Apple Store on the same Friday night and we both came home happy. Almost immediately we were up and chatting. It took Robert only around ten minutes to set his iSight up, compared to my 20-minute setup time. I can explain, honestly!
First I had to stare with awe at the box and then delicately open it. After I “ooh-ed and ah-ed” for a while, I finally decided it was time to set it up. The actual installation was surprisingly simple—pick out the stand for your particular Mac (in my case an eMac), affix the stand with the provided adhesive, thread the FireWire cable through the stand, and plug it into the Mac’s FireWire port. iChat AV automatically opens as soon as it senses the camera. I was video chatting with Robert within 30 seconds of plugging in the camera.
The quality of the iSight is amazing. It uses a 1/4-inch color CCD image sensor and has 640 x 480 VGA resolution. Focusing isn’t a problem, because the iSight has a built-in auto-focus mechanism. It can even capture full motion video at up to 30 fps. Of course, such high fps requires a massive amount of bandwidth.
The iSight uses the FireWire cable to carry power, audio, and video—one cord for everything you need to video chat. The integrated, dual-element microphone touts noise suppression abilities, which proves useful with an eMac.
From the moment you open the box and see the iSight, the three enclosed stands, the plastic storage case, the FireWire cable, and the FireWire cable adapter, you know that you are getting nothing but the best. $150 for a digital camera for the Internet may seem high, but the quality of the product and its unique design makes it worth the price. A 2,000 mile gap between families is difficult, but the iSight has proven to be a perfect solution to our long-distance communication dilemma.
A Couple of Points
In the tens of hours we’ve used the iSight and the iChat AV beta, we’ve had only a couple of minor issues usually resolved by restarting iChat. These include a couple cases of a loss of sound and occasionally jittery or slow-moving video. Internet connection speed will impact video quality and these issues may have had more to do with the Internet connections than the iSight or iChat AV.
Although the iSight can capture images at 640 x 480, at 15 fps over iChat AV the camera delivers images to the viewer at 176 x 144 and scales up to 352 x 288 at 30 fps on a very fast connection on a high-performance Mac. The iSight does not capture video for iMovie, although there is third-party software available. The iSight can be used as an external microphone for iChat AV or iMovie for audio-only conversations.
The camera does tend to get hot if it’s left plugged in to the FireWire port for hours at a time. I’ve chosen to routinely remove the iSight during times I anticipate it will not be in use.
Is the iSight the same as being there? Heck no! But for people who would like to communicate in sight and sound across great distances it’s an extraordinary product. In this case, after a train trip we’ll never forget, the iSight allows Sue and me to share moments we hope to always remember. In Clayton’s case, he gets his cell phone back and all parties save big dollars on telephone and cell phone charges.