iChat power tips

Whether the holidays have renewed your commitment to keep in touch with distant family or kept you busy finalizing plans for the office party, ’tis the season for using iChat AV. And with version 3.0, Apple greatly enhanced iChat AV, adding new features such as support for multiple-person audio and video chats. Of course, it’s easy to launch iChat and start typing, but you can take your chats further with these tips.

Group your buddies

If you have five iChat buddies, finding one of them in a list is no problem. But if you have 50, 100, or more, you’ll benefit from organizing your buddies into manageable groups. While groups aren’t new to iChat, version 3.0 offers improvements that make them even more useful.

To start, use the View menu to select Show Offline Buddies, Use Groups, and (optionally) Use Offline Group. When you do so, all your buddies will appear beneath a gray divider bar, labeled Buddies, in the Buddy List window.

You can now click on the plus sign (+) at the bottom of the window and choose Add Group from the pop-up menu. Give the group a name and click on Add, and you’ll see a new divider bar in the Buddy List window. If you have a lot of groups to create, click on the plus sign and choose Edit Groups instead of Add Group. This will let you add more than one group at a time, using a small edit window. Your groups will appear sorted alphabetically by name. You can control their order by placing spaces or numbers at the front of each group’s name.

After you’ve created all your groups, the hard part begins—organizing your buddies. There’s only one way to do this: drag and drop. Use the shift or Command key to select more than one buddy at a time. If you want a buddy to appear in more than one group, simply option-drag the person’s name from one group to another. When you’re done, you can use the small triangles next to each group name to hide and show group members (see screenshot).

Group Greatness You don’t have to be a teenager to accumulate a massive—and overwhelming—list of buddies. Luckily, iChat 3.0’s improved group features make it easy to separate your buddies into more-manageable subsets.

Automatically accept chats

Normally, when a buddy initiates an audio or video chat with you, you have to accept the invitation before the conversation can begin. But you can use a hidden setting to make iChat automatically accept these invitations. You may wonder why you might want to do this (as visions of unexpected video chats in which you’re wearing pajamas dance through your head): it’s very useful to be able to accept chats automatically if you’re using your Mac as a tool for remote monitoring.

For example, you could set up your home Mac with iChat and an iSight camera and connect to it from work, to check on your dog or to see whether someone left a package by your front door. Yes, you can do all of this with Webcam software, such as Evological’s EvoCam ($25), but in a pinch, iChat makes a decent (and free) remote-monitoring tool.

To enable automatic video- or audio-chat connections, quit iChat, open Terminal (in /Applications/Utilities), and enter either or both of these commands:

defaults write com.apple.ichat AutoAcceptVCInvitations 1

defaults write com.apple.ichat AutoAcceptACInvitations 1

The first command enables automatic video chats; the second one is for audio chats. When you relaunch iChat, it will automatically connect anyone initiating an audio or video chat with you. To turn this feature off, quit iChat again and repeat the above commands, but change the numeral


Chat anywhere

Just because you or your buddies are busy shopping doesn’t mean you all can’t still give and receive iChat messages. Use iChat’s ability to communicate with mobile phones.

Send Messages to Mobile Phones Did you know that you can use iChat to send a message to any cell phone that’s Short Message Service (SMS) enabled? Select File: New Chat With Person (or press Command-shift-N). In the space reserved for the person’s name, enter his or her phone number instead, formatted like this:



is necessary; then you just list the full phone number with area code. Click on OK and enter your message text as you normally would. When you press return, iChat will tell you it has sent the message to the phone. Depending on the service provider your recipient uses, he or she might be able to reply to your message from the cell phone.

Receive Messages on a Mobile Phone It’s pretty easy to get all of your iChat messages while you’re away from your computer. The trick is that you need an AIM screen name, not a .Mac account, to do so. If you don’t have one yet, visit my.screenname .aol.com and sign up for a free account. Then configure iChat to use your AIM screen name, if it doesn’t already, by visiting iChat: Preferences and clicking on Accounts. Click on the plus sign to add new account information. (You can switch between multiple accounts via the iChat: Switch To menu item; just choose the account that you want to use.)

Once you’re logged in to iChat via your AIM screen name, visit AOL’s MyMobile page, mymobile .aol.com. Click on Sign In To MyMobile and log in with your AIM screen name if necessary. When you reach the main MyMobile page, click on the My Mobile Settings button on the left side of the screen and follow the instructions. Once you enable forwarding, AIM will send all received iChat messages to your cell phone via SMS.

If you use a .Mac account for iChat, you can’t take advantage of this feature directly. However, you can create a workaround using Away status messages. Create a new AIM account with message forwarding, but leave iChat set to use your .Mac account. When you want to use the forwarding service, click on the status message below your name and set up a custom Away message. Use something such as “Reach me via an iChat msg to ScreenName ” (replace ScreenName with your AIM screen name). The message should be short because only 42 characters will show up on recipients’ screens.

Keep in mind that your carrier may charge you for receiving text messages, so check your plan to make sure that you don’t get an unpleasant surprise, such as a $500 cell-phone bill.

Stop chat mishaps

Most of the time, iChat just plain works. But there are times when it doesn’t, and those times can be frustrating—especially when you’re trying to have a video chat with grandma.

Poor-quality multiparty chats

One of Tiger’s most discussed features is iChat’s support for multiparty audio and video chats—you can theoretically hold a four-person video chat or a ten-person audio chat. I say theoretically because success depends on both the speed of the systems involved and the available bandwidth. If you’re having trouble with multiparty chats (you can’t start one for instance, or you get choppy video and dropped-out sound), it’s more than likely due to one of those factors.

To launch a multiperson audio chat, you need at least a 1GHz G4, a dual-800MHz G4, or any G5, and at least a 128-Kbps connection (upload and download). Check with your DSL or cable provider if you’re unsure of your connection speeds. Participants can be on any G3, G4, or G5 machine, as long as they have at least a 56-Kbps connection, which covers any Mac that shipped with a modem in the past few years.

As you might expect, multiperson video chats have more-stringent requirements. To launch such a chat, you’ll need a dual-1GHz G4 or faster, or any G5 machine. You’ll also need a 384-Kbps Internet connection, but you’ll get better results with even more bandwidth. Participants must have a 1GHz G4, a dual-800MHz G4, or any G5, and at least a 100-Kbps Internet connection.

Apple has a nice chart at the bottom of its iChat page that lays out the requirements for all the various audio- and video-chat options.

Insufficient bandwidth

Does your Mac say you have “insufficient bandwidth” whenever you attempt to start a video chat—even if both chatters have high-speed Internet connections? Apple corrected this problem with OS X 10.4.2, so if you haven’t upgraded from 10.4 yet, do so via your Software Update preference pane. Apple also says that McAfee Virex 7.5.X can cause this problem, and recommends removing it.

Camera in use

Keep getting an error message stating that your camera is already in use—even though it’s not? There’s a simple solution. Just pull the plug on your camera, wait a few seconds, and then plug it in again. If this fails to fix the problem, try quitting all open applications. If that fails, you may need to restart your Mac.

Find more help

For more help with iChat, try Apple’s iChat AV Support page, which contains a list of the top support issues. If that’s not enough information, visit Apple’s iChat Discussions group and look for posts from other people who may have found solutions to problems like yours.

[ Senior Editor Rob Griffiths is the author of Mac OS X Power Hound, Panther Edition (O’Reilly, 2004), and runs the Mac OS X Hints Web site. ]