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Expanding your chats

With Tiger, Apple has upgraded iChat AV with the ability to set up multi-person video and audio chats. But there’s more to this latest version of OS X’s built-in instant messaging software than the prospect of having three other people staring back at you in video chats instead of just one. iChat AV 3.0 offers several new features in iChat that will interest those of us who have made instant messaging an important part of our work and personal lives.

Multi-User Chat

Let’s start off with the most widely known new feature in iChat 3: multi-user chats. You can now create a video chat with as many as three other people, as well as an audio chat with as many as nine others. These features really work—we’ve tested them out ourselves. But reality is a little more complicated than Apple’s slick video-chat demos would suggest.

If you want to set up a four-person chat with crystal-clear video, as in those Apple demos, you’ll need good cameras and lighting, but you’ll also need four people with extremely fast Internet connections. In a four-person chat, there’s a whole lot of video and audio flying across the Internet to the four participating systems. It’s a lot of data, and even some fast Internet connections just can’t keep up.

To keep the chats going under less than ideal circumstances, iChat figures out ways to reduce the amount of data flowing across the network. Smartly, iChat prioritizes audio and the frame rate of the video signal—without these two aspects, a video chat would be awkward at best and unusable at worst. But since iChat has to throw something away, picture quality is the first thing to go—the result being that oftentimes a multi-person video chat will feature one or more participants whose video cameras appear to have gone horribly out of focus. (That’s actually iChat cleverly blurring the image to smooth out the ugly pixelations of the compressed video image.) With three people chatting, there was relatively little blurring—but a fourth participant almost always seems to throw a couple of people into fuzzy-camera land.

iChat AV 3.0

How to get the best quality out of your video chats? Identify the person in your group with the fastest connection to the Internet and have them initiate the chat. iChat’s video chats work by designating one system as the “host” of the chat—the fastest system on the fastest connection does the bulk of the work. There was a noticeable difference in quality in our test chats when they were initiated by the guy who works as the gigantic Silicon Valley corporation instead of the guy with home-office DSL.

Also, the system requirements for four-person video conferencing in iChat 3 are pretty strict: according to Apple, you must be running at least a dual-1GHz G4 or a G5, connected to the Internet by at least a 384Kbps connection, in order to host a multi-person video chat; to participate, you’ve still got to have a 1GHz G4, dual-800MHz G4, or a G5, as well as a 100Kbps connection. So if you’ve got a friend with a fast Mac, you’ll need to ask her to initiate the video chat for you.

Higher-Quality Video

Even when you’re video chatting with just a single Tiger-using friend, the image quality in iChat 3 seems to be quite a bit better than previous versions. That’s because of the new H.264 video compression scheme used by iChat, which in our testing provided a crisper, smoother picture.

Secure Chat

Previously, iChat supported both the AOL Instant Messenger service and local chatting via Rendezvous. Those two features remain intact—although Rendezvous has been renamed “Bonjour.” But there’s now a third server option for iChat: Jabber.

Jabber is an open-source chat service protocol. Apple added it to iChat largely because lots of businesses—yes, including Macworld —rely on iChat to get real work done. And lots of technologists at those companies were quite concerned that confidential corporate information was being sent across the Internet via a server at AOL.

However, any business can set up a Jabber server, which lets corporate IT managers dole out official corporate chat accounts—and secure messages sent to and from the server via SSL encryption. (And it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the new Tiger version of Mac OS X Server comes with a built-in Jabber server.) Jabber clients and servers are available for every current operating system, so it’s a cross-platform alternative for business-level chatting.

Parental Controls

Tiger offers a series of user-level controls for parents from the Parental Controls tab of the Accounts system preference pane, and one of those controls is meant to be used with iChat 3: when the iChat parental control is selected, you can limit your kids’ iChatting to a specific list of accounts. So you can enable them to talk with you (yeah, like that’s gonna happen), grandma in Florida, and even a school friend—but not anyone else on the Net.

Buddy Groups Get Better

Although AOL’s chat system offers the useful concept of groups of chat buddy’s, iChat’s never really been up to speed with that feature. The first version didn’t support groups at all, and iChat AV 2.0’s group support was clunky at best.

But with iChat 3, Apple’s gotten AOL buddy groups right. Now when you turn on groups (via View: Show Groups), each group of buddies is preceded by a collapsable gray header. Clicking the header toggles between showing and hiding the members of that group. (When the header’s collapsed, iChat displays the number of buddies listed in that group to the far right of the bar.)

iChat AV Buddy List

Creating and editing is easy, too. Clicking on the plus symbol at the bottom-left corner of the Buddy List window will now let you add a buddy or a buddy group, as well as giving you an Edit Groups option that lets you add, rename, or delete groups. And moving your buddies from group to group is a breeze: you can promote a buddy from Acquaintances to Friends by dragging their name in the buddy list and dropping it atop a different group.

Although I’ve known about buddy groups for some time, I never found them worth using in iChat. That’s all changed now, and in iChat 3 buddy groups make it much easier to manage large groups of chat buddies.

iTunes Meets iChat

Are you a chat-status exhibitionist? At least half the people in my buddy list like to use their iChat status message to communicate interesting facts, including their mood and their current likes and dislikes. By far the most popular topic for the chat-status exhibitionist is the music they’re currently listening to—and with Tiger, Apple’s built support for it right into iChat. Just select Current iTunes Track from the list of status-line options, and iChat will automatically update itself to reflect your currently-playing track’s title and artist.

What’s good for the chat-status exhibitionist is also good for Apple’s online music efforts: other users of iChat 3.0 will notice an arrow icon at the end of an iChat status line. Click on it and you’ll instantly be transferred that song on the iTunes Music Store.

[ Jason Snell is Macworld ’s Editorial Director. ]

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