The December holiday period is a time for families to get together and share those precious moments which fly past all too quickly. But for some families distance is a real problem, and their only opportunity to convene will be through the power of the cell phone or Internet communications. Over the past five years over 10 million Europeans alone have migrated out of their home country, and there were 115 million hotel rooms booked for Euro holidays in December last year. Sadly, for many, staying in touch has increasingly meant a digital connection.
However this year may be the start of an improvement in the quality of that communication, and although it will never beat a real live hug, video calling technologies are starting to deliver the kind of promise demonstrated in science fiction movies over the past decades. We take a look at two of the leading contenders to see which is the one we’d like to sit down with on Christmas Day once the plates have been cleared away.
Logitech TV Cam HD
Released in full high resolution format a few months back, this latest product from the webcam giant is an impressive beast in a good number of ways. The product supports widescreen 720p HD video (as long as your Internet connection manages 1.2 mbps upload/download), and WiFi 802 g/n or a direct Ethernet cable connection. Skype is built into the unit, and it features a Carl Zeiss lensed camera and four noise cancelling microphones. This is not your grannies webcam!
The package comes with all the bits you’ll need to connect. The camera unit itself, a robust and clearly well made unit, along with a nicely ergonomic remote control, a multi-lingual user manual, HDMI cable and power plug. Set up is a breeze. Place the unit on top of your television for optimum eye level communication or anywhere else you think is suitable, plug it into the TV with the HDMI cable and power it up. One nice touch is the fact that the power cable is a standard microUSB, which means you don’t have to worry about yet another power brick format in the house.
Once it’s powered up, you’ll need to tell it which WiFi connection to use, give it passwords etc, and the product will then auto-update its software and reboot to ensure you’re on the latest version. A few minutes later you’ll see the Skype login screen and you’re set to go. At this point, the first thing you’ll notice is how well thought out the user interface is.
Everything on screen is only one click away from everything else, which means getting around is incredibly easy. Set up, contacts, the dial pad, everything is really accessible and easy to find. This is not an easy thing to accomplish (are you listening Microsoft) so it gets top marks from this reviewer. The other great touch is the motor adjustable camera. You’re not limited to one fixed position, you can dynamically pan and zoom the camera as needed from the comfort of your couch, again using the very intuitive remote control. Excellent.
The image quality is also top notch, as you’d expect from one of the top webcam manufacturers in the world, and the Carl Zeiss optics make optimum use of the room lighting. We were very impressed by the quality of the image at full screen, although we did notice quite a bit of lag at times as the wireless connection tried to keep up with the image rendering. The audio was likewise good, although we did notice a little room boominess (if that’s a word) at times.
The one thing it pays to note about these products is they don’t switch on the TV for you when a call comes in, which means you have to turn on the telly yourself, then change the source to the right channel for the HDMI cable, and then use the camera remote control to answer the call on-screen. It’s not a quick or easy job. If your television is CEC compatible (and it’s switched on) you should be able to automate a couple of the steps (the Logitech unit is compatible with CEC) but for those without this technology implemented, you’re going to need to press a few more buttons than you might enjoy.
Pros: A hugely impressive product in both hardware and software terms. A great user interface, super easy 5 minute set up and great picture quality. This is definitely a product you could hand to your grandparents.
Cons: You’ll need to be happy with channel source changing on your TV set. One way around this is to use an automated remote control like a Harmony unit, or hand the job to the geek in the family. You’ll also need lots of bandwidth to get the best out of the system.
Price: Street price of $209.99.
TelyHD Skype Camera
The TelyHD Skype Camera has been around a little longer than the Logitech product, and also features a well built and well designed piece of hardware. Unlike the Logi box, this one comes with a few more ports too, which gives it that extra bit of flexibility which you might need. There’s an SD port and a full sized USB connector as well as the power port and HDMI. One disappointment is the fact that the HDMI port is not a standard full sized one which most people have, but a mini version, but that’s not a problem since the product comes with its own cable inside.
Like the Logitech, there’s also a nice shiny remote control inside the box, as well as a Getting Started guide and power plug. Again unfortunately the power plug is not a standard microUSB, but a pinpoint type, which makes obtaining a replacement just that little more problematical. It’s a shame. Once you have all the parts assembled, you just have to slot the camera over the top of your TV or wherever else you want, plug in the HDMI cable, power it up and wait for the set up program to start.
Here is where the differences really start to show between the TelyHD and the Logitech model. The user interface in the TelyHD is nowhere near as intuitive or as easy to use as the Logitech camera. Set up is more complex, for a start, and once you’ve finished and logged into Skype you’re faced with one of the most cumbersome Skype screens you could possibly meet. Instead of presenting a grid of contact names, there’s a very trendy looking, but hugely annoying rolling carousel of contact cards, which is a horrible way to navigate through your contacts.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the other menu settings are buried layers deep in the interface, and accessible through a tortuous and non-memorable set of remote control button selections. It’s very computer engineer and absolutely not user interface. It’s a shame, but it mars an otherwise solid product and turns it into something which is not really suitable for prime time living room. It may be an unfair comparison, because Logitech has had decades to become familiar with user needs, but it’s a stark contrast to see the two side by side.
The functionality of the TelyHD unit is also sub-par when it comes to a comparison. The image quality is definitely not as good, there is no remote camera controls, so you can’t move the image from place to place in the room, and we found the attachment bracket just a little more fiddly than the Logitech one piece clamp. With the TelyHD you need to unhook a little lever to adjust the bracket, which is not apparent at first. It’s a small thing, but unnecessary. The one area where the TelyHD scores over the TV Cam HD is the fact that you can run a web browser and use an external wireless keyboard, which gives it more set top box type functionality. Our question is though, why complicate things when people just need a Skype phone?
Pros: A solid construction, and some nice additional flexibility like the SD card slot which can be used for sharing photos during a call. There’s also a nice remote control app for your smartphone if you don’t want to use the default one in the box. We also like the security cover for the camera if you’re worried about unauthorized viewing of your living room.
Cons: User interface is very clunky compared with the Logitech version, and makes it a chore to navigate and make calls from the unit. The image quality is not as optimal as it should be for an HD camera model.
Price: Street price of $229.98