Oprah’s Umi System Is One Only She Can Afford: Rich Jaroslovsky

Great technology doesn’t always make a great product. For evidence, there’s the umi, which takes Cisco Systems Inc.’s so-called telepresence videoconferencing out of the boardroom and plops it into the living room.

Using your big-screen, high-definition television to chat with friends and family from the comfort of your sofa -- instead of being hunched over a computer and squinting at a webcam -- is an awesome experience. Unfortunately, the umi’s cost and complexity are almost as awesome.

You may have heard of the umi (pronounced you-me, get it?) from its starring role on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” where it has displaced Skype Technologies as the hookup of choice for remote guests. Good choice: Oprah can afford it. The less well-heeled, though, may balk.

The umi hardware, which sells for $599, is just the beginning. Buyers must also sign up for service, which costs $24.99 a month, making a total first-year cost of $898.88. Moreover, the only people you can call at the moment are either other umi owners or users of Google Inc.’s video chat service. If you want to call someone who uses Skype or Apple Inc.’s FaceTime, you’re out of luck.

The umi consists of a camera-microphone unit that mounts atop your TV, and a slender black console that’s about the size of a Blu-ray player. To set up the system, you run the included HDMI high-definition cables between the camera and console, and between the console and your TV. Then, you’ll run another cable, this one a USB connection, between the camera and the console.

More Cables

Although the umi will work over a Wi-Fi connection, you’ll get the best performance if you plug the console into your router or an Ethernet port, requiring yet another cable. Want to watch TV and use the umi at the same time without having to switch back and forth manually? You guessed it: still another cable, this one between the console and your TV set-top box.

If you’re keeping score, that’s five cables running back and forth behind the entertainment center, not counting the power cord.

Once you have the umi hooked up and configured to suit your room, you’ll make calls using the included remote control. Each umi has a unique six-digit number -- think of it as a video phone number -- that you’ll need to know before dialing; there’s no such thing as umi directory assistance. And you can only import contacts from Google. If you use some other source for your address book, you have to build a umi list from scratch.

A Glitch

While the umi normally supports 1080p -- that is, full high-definition -- video, I encountered an unusual glitch that resulted in a picture that failed to fill the full screen of my TV. Eventually, a team of Cisco engineers was able to clear up the situation, concluding that the problem lay either with my otherwise normally functioning cable modem, or somewhere on my Internet service provider’s network.

Normal consumers are unlikely to be able to call upon teams of dedicated Cisco engineers, so it’s probably a good thing that Cisco is selling the umi through Best Buy Co.’s Magnolia Home Theater stores, with Best Buy’s Geek Squad standing by. Cisco has also announced a deal with Verizon Communications Inc. to market the umi to customers of Verizon’s Fios service, though there’s no word yet on cost or level of technical support.

With all those drawbacks, the umi has only one saving grace. When it’s working right, it’s vastly better than any home videoconferencing system I’ve ever seen.

Umi Is Better

Other companies have introduced big-screen video calling, including Microsoft Corp. with its Kinect controller for the Xbox 360 and Logitech International with an add-on camera for its Revue TV box. Cisco’s service is better.

The umi works much like a telephone. You dial, someone answers, and you are instantly in communication. If you have sufficient bandwidth, the video is smooth and the audio is loud and clear.

In short, you’re able to have a natural, seamless conversation that’s the next best thing to being in the same room. If the person you’re calling isn’t home or doesn’t answer, you’ll get a video greeting asking you to leave a message, which can then be retrieved just like voicemail either on the umi itself, or from a Cisco website.

You can see how the umi could, over time, develop into a compelling product, as it gets cheaper, smaller, simpler and allows connections with other video services. For now, though, its appeal is limited to special cases -- say, an affluent family that might want to buy a pair for connecting a remote grandma and grandpa to the kids.

Unless grandma and grandpa are engineers, though, just don’t expect them to set it up themselves. Or, if they’re on a fixed income, to pay the bills.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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