iSight alternative

Reader K.B. is on his way overseas and seeks a way to keep in touch with his family. He writes:

I’m a soldier about to deploy to Iraq and fairly computer literate — although my family is not. For this reason, I got them a new Mac mini. The idea would be that it would just work. My wife has memories of me spending entire weekends fighting with the old PC.

The 911 I need, however, is concerning webcam support on the Mac. As you can imagine, webcam communication will be pretty important in the next several months for us. I’m hugely disappointed, however, with Apple in that it does not seem to have a decent video chat solution at the moment. The iSight is discontinued, and there don’t seem to be any webcams out there that are inherently Mac-friendly (i.e., that “just work” without downloading some additional third-party software that may or may not work).

Any suggestions?

Ecamm Network provides a number of webcam solutions. Among them is its $60 iMage USB Webcam. The company describes this USB 2.0 webcam as “driverless,” meaning that no additional software is required for it to work (though the company includes its iMage Plugin software, which allows the webcam to work with iChat AV). The iMage does not include a microphone, however, so for Macs that don’t offer an internal microphone (the Mac mini, for example) you’ll need to add a USB microphone to the mix.

Also take a look at the company’s $10 iChatUSBCam software. It lets you use a variety of USB webcams with iChat AV. This page lists compatible cameras.

Finally, if you have an old FireWire camcorder with a built-in microphone you can use it as a webcam. Just jack it into a free FireWire port and switch it into record mode. iChat AV should recognize it as a viable source. Read the manual to learn how to keep it switched on — most cameras will turn off after a period of time. For example, you can keep some cameras on by turning off an energy saving setting or by removing the tape from the camera.

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