Video Phones: They're Fun, But Still Fuzzy

You've washed your hair, put on dapper duds, and practiced your smile. Now you're presentable enough to turn on the television. Seem weird? Not anymore. Your TV is suddenly going two-way.

In the past few months, C-Phone, 8x8, and 3Com have introduced set-top boxes that transform your TV into a videophone. Their persuasive appeal is that you can use them to eyeball friends and family over long distances. But like picture phones that reside inside PCs or use the Internet to turn your PC into a videoconferencing device, TV phones are still primitive. Squeezing words and pictures through ordinary telephone lines can result in images that are distorted and shake like Jello. That may be O.K. for showing off your new kid to the grandparents out West, but not much use if you have serious business to conduct. The latter would require more expensive videoconferencing gear that can offer better-quality pictures and the ability to view documents.

TESTING. Still, the idea of putting a videophone on a television screen makes sense for people who would rather not fuss with a computer. With that in mind, I put two video TV phones to the test: the $649 C-Phone Home and the $449 8x8 ViaTV Phone VC105. (3Com's $449 Bigpicture TV Phone is a close cousin to the 8x8 entry.) The people I called were running compatible units adhering to the H324 videophone standard, meaning they work over regular phone lines. I had no trouble making a C-Phone connect to 8x8's version.

The initial challenge in connecting the ViaTV phone was finding a telephone near enough to my television. Unlike the C-Phone, which contains a built-in speakerphone, you must hook up your own touch-tone telephone to 8x8's product (fortunately the box comes with long cords). Connecting the set-top box to the TV was no harder than attaching a VCR, and the unit has a pivotal base that makes it easy to aim the built-in camera. My first action was to dial ViaTV's toll-free number to download an upgrade into the set-top box. Inside the box is an analog modem capable of 33.6 KBPS, though I connected at far slower speeds during my calls. A similar modem rests inside C-Phone.

Both phones start out with voice-only calls. Either party can initiate the video with 8x8's phone, but only the person you're calling can activate the video on C-Phone. If either one of you gets camera shy, you can block the video. It took roughly 30 seconds of dead air before any pictures materialized on either screen.

With 8x8, I pressed the # key on my phone to gain access to a TV menu that let me adjust a variety of settings. The onscreen menu was poorly labeled; I had to dig deep inside the manual to find out that pressing the "8" key returned me to the previous menu. Once I got the hang of it, I could control the size of my friend's picture, display my own image, or put the two on the screen simultaneously. From my phone I could also control the pan and tilt of the camera on my friend's box. In addition, 8x8 lets you vary between sharper focus and faster movement: At the highest speeds, the image was badly distorted, reminding me of a mosaic with small squares dropping out. However, under any of the settings, I'd be surprised if my friend and I got anywhere near 8x8's stated maximum rate of 15 frames per second (broadcast TV quality is 30 FPS).

As with the 8x8 phone, the C-Phone lets you trade off between a more detailed picture and fluidity of motion. I preferred adjusting the images using the remote control that came with C-Phone. But the remote, like the 8x8 onscreen menu, could have been labeled more clearly. C-Phone seemed to deliver a slightly better picture than the 8x8 in low light, but its images were also shaky at times. The friend I called in Chicago compared it to watching transmissions from outer space. There was also a noticeable echo at my end in New York and, due to line noise, the picture froze and we lost the audio on occasion. C-Phone's box is larger than the 8x8 unit, so it took up a lot of room atop my TV. My Chicago friend also had a tough time setting up the unit because of a faulty cord.

C-Phone will soon launch a $1,000 TV version that will operate over higher speed ISDN phone lines, and 8x8 has introduced a $649 desktop videophone--an improvement over an ill-fated $1,500 version marketed by AT&T in 1992. Meantime, I suppose the best part of TV-based videophoning is, there's finally something decent to watch on TV.

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