Toy Box: Mac video cam keeps simplicity in iSight

The iSight camera is a one-trick pony, but it's a well-executed trick. Apple has resisted the temptation to put bells or whistles on the camera and designed it specifically for videoconferencing.

The iSight camera is a one-trick pony, but it's a well-executed trick. Apple has resisted the temptation to put bells or whistles on the camera and designed it specifically for videoconferencing.

The camera doesn't tilt, pan, zoom or focus. It doesn't have its own memory, or battery, or web server, or waterproof case. What it does do is make videoconferencing very simple, and makes video conversation enjoyable and natural.

The iSight is designed as a close companion to iChat AV, the new version of Apple's instant messaging software. iChat AV is available in a public beta, and slated to be released as part of Apple's forthcoming OS update, codenamed Panther, later this year. Users who don't upgrade to Panther will be able to buy iChat AV for $US29.95.

As with all Apple products the iSight arrives beautifully packaged. It connects to the computer through a firewire cable, which also supplies power so no other wiring is needed. Three different camera mounts are included, which allow the camera to be placed on almost any monitor. The cable is tucked inside the mount -- most people will find the cable isn't visible at all.

Apple has designed the iSight to be placed above users' monitors so they will appear to be looking as directly at the camera as possible. This face-on view provides something akin to eye contact and makes video chats much more natural than the view from a desk-mounted camera.

In our tests the camera performed well in a range of lighting conditions. The picture was clear with good contrast. On a busy corporate network, iChat AV found other users automatically and the image retained its quality. Performance was acceptable even at low JetStream speeds.

When connecting to a dial-up user the video image is not transmitted. The chat is conducted through speech only.

What is particularly pleasing about the iSight is the trademark Apple attention to detail. The camera includes a shutter which can be closed so you can be certain of your privacy. What's nice is that the shutter is white, so it's easy to see at a glance whether or not the camera is on. What's nicer is that opening the shutter automatically causes iChat AV to launch. Sweet.

The iChat AV preferences allow video bandwidth to be throttled to avoid affecting other network traffic. That's a sensible option for corporate users and home users afraid of running up large ISP bills.

If there's a downside to the iSight and iChat AV, it's probably that old Apple bugbear: market share. Despite periodic promises to play nice, the major IM clients and protocols -- AIM, AOL, MSN, Yahoo and Jabber -- are still incompatible. MSN Messenger also supports videoconferencing, but won't understand iChat AV, which uses the AIM protocol. It's possible future releases of iChat will support other protocols, but at the moment, it appears iChat AV users will only be talking among themselves. (That's true for MSN users also, but they're more numerous.)

Apple has a history of kick-starting the rest of the computer industry -- think of USB, Firewire, consumer video editing and the iTunes movie store -- and we're sure the iSight will prompt other manufacturers to ship similar products.

The iSight/iChat AV combo makes videoconferencing so easy, it heralds the day when companies will routinely use videoconferencing to communicate with remote offices, customers and suppliers. We can only wait to see what consumers do with the technology.

Apple iSight video camera

Pros: Excellent picture, attention to detail; well integrated with iChat AV software; single-purpose design.

Cons: Video chat limited to other iSight/iChat AV users; single-purpose design.

Requires: Mac OS X, iChat AV, Firewire-equipped computer.

Price range from about $275, ex of GST

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