In getting a better handle on Skype’s recently launched High Quality Video service it was necessary to try a few scenarios "outside the box".
Over the past ten days I have been doing various tests to determine where to position Skype’s High Quality Video including:
- comparison with SightSpeed
- working with a Mac at the other end
- working with parties who do not have the necessary hardware to send High Quality Video.
High Quality Video vs SightSpeed
I have always been an admirer of SightSpeed since its launch at the "last Comdex" about five years ago. For 320 x 240 @ 30 fps video it has tended to be the benchmark standard. When testing Skype’s High Quality Video with "Phone Boy" Dameon Welch Tuesday evening we had an ideal scenario for doing comparative testing. We were running Skype High Quality Video and SightSpeed on exactly the same platforms and network connections, neutralizing all those variables from the equation. And we were both using the new Logitech webcams with Carl-Zeiss optics and Right Light Sensing, so that was not a variable either. Also it was actually the first time I had run both Skype and SightSpeed at about the same time and picked up a few other differences.
- Audio quality: while I was not listening for it in particular, when using one and then the other sequentially, the superior sound quality of Skype was quite noticeably evident. Not sure of the audio bandwidth technical specs for either but my ears simply sensed crisper and clearer audio quality with Skype.
Video: of course, with support for 640 x 480 resolution @ 24 – 30 fps, Skype High Quality Video provides four times the picture size. SightSpeed, over a 384 kbps network connection, runs at 320 x 240 resolution1; the images above have been proportionately reduced to fit within the blog width. SightSpeed’s quality legacy was helped significantly by the fact they were running at 30 fps at this resolution. But, aside from image size, we found some significant differences:
- Color: the images on SightSpeed tended to have a purplish hue whereas, while the Skype images were overall slightly darker, they had more natural tones.
- Motion: when waving hands and putting up fingers we found that Skype maintained the crispness of image while SightSpeed had significant ghosting.
- Dynamic range of image lighting: light sources such as ceiling room lights can tend to saturate the camera; I have now had two situations where the light source of this intensity was compensated by the Skype software (even relative to the "raw" QuickCam software). It tones down the intense light source to the point where surrounding objects are more clearly identified. Note also the clarity of the window details in the left background in the Skype image. If there were any criticism it would be that it can tend to slightly darken the rest of the image. However, it is not an inhibitor to image quality nor does it introduce any "ghosting" associated with hand or head motion; most importantly, it was not distractive to the ongoing conversation.
- File transfer user experience: With Skype, doing a file transfer of a video image is a much simpler process. Click on the camera icon, a snapshot is taken and placed in a separate window. Within this new window is a "File Transfer" icon which, on clicking, gives you the option to send an image file to your called party or to another Skype user. Basically, three clicks and the image is captured and sent. With SightSpeed you have to store the image as a file using, say, SnagIt, and then click on a Send File button and then browse to locate the image on your PC. Becomes a very efficient ninth approach to file transfer when using Skype.
- Friday afternoon Dameon and I had a second call to confirm we could repeat our experience and observations. Towards the end I put the video up to full screen 1650 x 1080; for the final fifteen minutes of the call it was almost as if Dameon was sitting on the other side my desk. Occasional pixelation but not distractive to the conversation. And the High Quality Video logo was present for most of the call.
While we have certainly seen superior performance with Skype Video in our tests, we can fully expect that SightSpeed and others are doing the research and development to upgrade their services also. SightSpeed remains the leader for high quality multi-party video conferencing with their recently introduced SightSpeed for Business. But, with a search in place for additional video developer talent at Skype, we can expect further advances from Skype. As always usage and adoption will be driven by the overall user experience for various user requirements, whether business conferencing, full motion video or multi-modal real time personal conversations.
Video Calls with Mac Users
With the outbreak of Mac acquisitions amongst my network of contacts, it was worthwhile to check out the video calling experience with Mac users. I have had at least four contacts with whom I was receiving reasonably good quality; two were transoceanic, talking with traveling callers in hotel rooms in Estonia and Germany. Most had modified their config.xml so that the MacBook’s iSight camera would send in 640 x 480. Common to all the calls was that we would, at a minimum, see 640 x 480 @ 15 fps bidirectionally. While the Skype for Mac client does not support any logo identifying High Quality Video reception, I occasionally would see my end identified as transmitting High Quality Video but would not call it sustainable. On the other hand over the 30 minutes or more of both the transoceanic calls, the frame rate maintained a minimum of 15 fps for most of the calls; picture quality was certainly crisp with a minimum of motion ghosting, if at all.
Skype and Logitech tell me they would like to work with Apple; however, they require more assistance than is publicly available in terms of ability to make modifications to facilitate High Quality Video. Sounds a little like the attitude that Apple took initially with respect to third party applications on the iPhone.
Video Calls with Single Processor PC’s
While one can certainly make Skype video calls to Contacts on single processor Windows PC’s, there is no guarantee of quality or even the ability to receive High Quality Video. Out of several attempts only an Inspiron 6000 with a 1.6 GHz processor was able to receive High Quality Video with any sustainability; in fact, with Skype 3.6 installed, the High Quality Video logo would appear in the video image. On the other hand, one can have a reasonable quality video call with contacts using these PC’s. In some cases, the video reception improved on the single processor PC if the other party closed one or two CPU-intensive applications.
There certainly are some features of the Logitech Carl-Zeiss equipped webcams that contribute to the performance including a wider angle lens, the Right Light sensing, an autofocus capability that focuses on business cards as close as three inches from the camera but yet having a significant depth of field. Most impressive is the Right Light sensing which has been picking out images in a <50 watt desk lamp situation in an otherwise dark room.
As Dameon has summarized "Under the right conditions, Skype’s High Quality Video kicks SightSpeed video quality to the curb." Certainly we have had a couple of excellent quality conversations over the past week and found it was not only a more impressive but also a more "natural" experience. Keep in mind Skype’s High Quality Video was targeted towards "head and shoulder" images with occasional transient movement. Skype VIdeo’s intelligent adaptation to CPU load and end point network conditions certainly help to maintain the overall quality of the video call experience even when conditions drop below the benchmark for full High Quality Video .
Skype’s High Quality Video certainly sets some new benchmarks for video conversation performance; it is probably Skype’s most significant feature introduction of this past year. When incorporated with all the other real time conversation features of Skype and the auxiliary services, such as file transfer and archivable instant messaging, Skype has set new benchmarks for the overall real time conversation experience.
As with any new CPU-intensive application, we are at the beginning of an era of seeing hardware capable of providing higher resolution real time video and learning what are the technology demands for such a requirement. It’s a great example of the innovation that drives this industry; I’m sure we’ll be seeing over the next year both competitive communications services and hardware vendors attempting to match or surpass the performance we have seen here.
Previous and Other Bloggers’ Posts:
- High Quality Video: What’s the Benchmark?
- High Quality Video: Definitely a Winner for Skype
- The VoIP Weblog: High Quality Video Testing
- VoIP Blog – Tehrani.com: Skype High Quality Video
- VoIP and Gadgets Blog (Tom Keating): Skype High Quality Video Review
- To Be Restored: Camera Flexibility for Video Hackers
- Installing a Logitech High Quality Video Camera: The Experience.
SightSpeed will support 640 x 480 provided there is a 1.5 Mbps download and upload bandwidth available. However, while most broadband services support in excess of 1.5 Mbps download, they cap out at 800 Kbps or less for upload.
Tags: Skype, Skype Video, High Quality Video, Phone Boy, Dameon Welch, SightSpeed, Logitech, Carl-Zeiss optics
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