Sightspeed vs Skype IMs: Free VoIP Video Calling

Text messaging, instant messaging, and VoIP are all pretty hot ways to communicate these days. So a few weeks back, Technopedia’s editor, Abhinav, asked me to review the Gaim and Trillian IM (Instant Messaging) clients. Both are pretty cool, are skinnable, and support a number of other clients including MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, and several others. So it’s easy to consolidate all of your IM accounts.

But I figure why use any of them when there are VoIP clients that can handle text, audio and sometimes video. One cool example is Sightspeed, a competitor to Skype and Gizmo Project. All three are both IM clients and VoIP clients. Thus, if you have a microphone and headset, you can make free VoIP audio calls to anyone running the same software.

In fact, Gizmo Project allows you to also contact people on specific other VoIP soft client networks. Unfortunately, Skype isn’t one of them, as they do not have an open interface.

On the other hand, if you want free video VoIP calling, free video email, and video conference calls with up to three other people, Sightspeed is the way to go. (Skype now has video enabled, but it requires a plugin, and their website does not make much effort to promote the video features.)

I’ve got ALL of the above-mentioned IM and VoIP clients on my laptop, and my fave at the moment has to be Sightspeed. While the free version does not let you do video conferencing, the paid plan is only US$4.95/m or $44.95/yr, which also gives you unlimited 60 second video mail stored for an unlimited time. The free plan gives you unlimited 30 second video mail store for 30 days.

Besides regular VoIP audio chats, you can do VoIP video calling, send video mail to one or more people – even if they are not Sightspeed members – or publish videos to a weblog. The latter two options are done by recording a new video message with your webcam and uploading it (free) to Sightspeed servers. If you are sending video mail, your recipient(s) will get an email with the appropriate URL link. If you want to publish the video for a weblog, Sightspeed will generate a URL link, which you can include in your blog.

Now if that’s not enough for you, anyone who is not a Sightspeed member can still have a video/ audio VoIP chat with you. Both the free and paid plans give you a free web page, where a plugin (IE 6+ only) lets them have a video chat with you.

I tried a cheapo USB “snake” webcam (< $100) on both Skype and Sightspeed and only Sightspeed picked up the signal. Neither seems to be able to receive video from my Palm Treo 650 – though I may have something on it configured incorrectly. (Skype provides a shortlist of Skype-certified webcams on their website.)

The interesting thing is that my laptop RAM is only 512 Mb and the webcam doesn’t function too well on it in other video capture applications (such as Snagit screen capture software). But the camera actually functions well enough in Sightspeed, even with my RAM usage maxed out. Still, I’d recommend either a gigabyte of RAM or dual processors, or both. (I have both on my desktop, and the videocam functions much better over there, but I kept that computer offline, so I haven’t tested it with Sightspeed.)

To put Sightspeed to the test, I called up their friendly Support Guy in audio mode first. I jokingly said that I looked really scruffy, not having shaved in days, and I wanted to see but didn’t want him to see me. He laughed and told me how to change my camera settings. I then called him back in video mode and it worked like a charm. However, I haven’t tested it in the other direction, where I’d be able to see the caller and they couldn’t see me.

I also recorded and uploaded a video mail and emailed it to myself. Very simple process. The email just contains a link, not the actual video. That’s true for blog use as well. I haven’t figured out if I can embed the video on blog, to make it viewable from there instead of having to go to the Sightspeed website.

I’m going to love this software, and you just might too. Now if I can only get my relatives across the world an Internet connection, I can see and hear them at the same time. The drawback is that Sightspeed does not currently allow you to communicate with other audio or video IM clients, so you may have to install several software packages like I have.

Sightspeed is available for Win 2000/ XP and for Mac OSX 10.3.9 and up.

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