Tiger evaluated: iChat

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a ongoing series of feature-by-feature reviews of OS X 10.4. Part one looked at the pros and cons of Tiger’s Spotlight search technology.

I’m impressed by a lot of what’s in iChat 3.0, the new version that’s a part of Mac OS X Tiger. The much-promoted multi-user videoconferencing features are cool, but more importantly, they actually work .

Video chat in action: I’ve participated in numerous test chats— everybody I know keeps inviting me to test out iChat once they get Tiger up and running, since the camera and microphone icons in iChat’s Buddy List appear with a “stacked” background that make it obvious that I’m running Tiger. And in those chats, I never got the sense that we were all horribly out of sync.

I’ve used previous versions of iChat for numerous one-to-one video chats. I take my iSight camera with me when I travel, so I can video chat with my family back home. But often, those chats are bogged down by a noticeable delay that causes lots of hiccups in the conversation. This version of iChat appears to be much better than previous versions, with even the conversations I had in my multi-user chats feeling quite natural.

The new H.264 video codec also makes one-on-one video chats look far better than they did before. I ignored the video flaws in previous versions of iChat, because video chatting was such a novel thing. But the first time I saw a high-quality video chat in Tiger, I realized what a big improvement it was.

Barriers to chatting: However, I’m disappointed by the extreme barriers to starting a multi-person videoconference: at least a dual-1GHz G4 and a fast DSL connection. I realize that hosting a multi-person video chat is a lot of work; I just wish Tiger was smarter about evaluating the specs of everyone invited to a chat, and determining if any of them have the power to host that chat.

As it is, my 1.5 GHz PowerBook G4 can’t host video chats—so if I want to chat with a couple of friends, and I know that at least one of whom has a G5 and a high-speed line, why I do I have to beg one of them to initiate the chat for me? Shouldn’t iChat broker that deal, and leave the humans out of the process?

Buddy groups are great: The core of iChat is its Buddy List window, and with this new version the window is much improved, thanks to much better support for AIM’s buddy groups. iChat’s previous group support involved a bad pop-up/drawer interface, which has been replaced with a simple set of headers that appear above all the buddies in a particular group. Clicking on the header collapses or displays the contents of a group. Transferring buddies is a drag-and-drop operation. And finally I can organize my Buddy List, which has been bursting at the seams.

iChat’s a work tool, too: It’s nice that Apple has added support for Jabber, meaning that organizations can run Jabber-compatible servers so that company instant-messaging is kept safe and secure. But in my opinion, that’s only a first step. Users the world over regard instant messaging as a vital business tool, day in and day out. (I know that I’ve come to rely on it in a massive way here at Macworld .)

And yet, Apple hasn’t really done anything to make iChat anything more than a basic text-chat client. Yes, you can now search iChat transcripts using Spotlight—although, sadly, there’s no special "chats" category to help you specifically separate chat transcripts from other generic documents. I also wish iChat had chat-archive-browsing features built-in, the same sort of features you can get on the side via Spiny Software’s excellent Logorrhea.

In conclusion...: iChat 3.0 is not to be ignored. It’s got numerous feature improvements large and small—I cover more of them in this article, if you’re interested in a bit more detail. The multi-user video chat works as advertised, although it’s extremely unfortunate that only heavy hitters can initiate a chat. I wouldn’t upgrade to Tiger solely for iChat… unless I was a heavy user of video chat, in which case the improved messaging application would probably be worth the price of the upgrade all on its own.

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