Combine geek-dad gadget lust with the promise of an easier way to stay in touch with faraway family, and you can see how the latest generation of standalone video chat boxes might have a good sales story to tell for this Father's Day weekend. While Cisco's discontinued ūmi never caught on in a big way with consumers (possibly the introductory $600 price and $25 monthly fee had something to do with it), the idea of a slim HD camera pack that fits atop the living room TV, instantly connecting with similar hardware or distributed software chat apps, still seems promising.
The two Mac and iOS-friendly set-top chat products making a move in the market now are the $149 Biscotti and the $249 telyHD. Both systems work in a straightforward way -- they connect to your TV via HDMI, capture an HD image with an onboard camera and tie into your home network to call friends and family.
Neither unit requires a monthly subscription plan, thereby avoiding the Cisco problem. Of course, neither plays along with Apple's wasn't-it-supposed-to-be-open FaceTime protocol, so if you're looking for a portable video chatting device that works with Skype, Google Talk and FaceTime you might consider the $199 iPod touch.
Both the telyHD and the Biscotti interoperate with a public video chat service (Google Talk for Biscotti, Skype for telyHD) so you aren't limited to chatting with the folks who have the same hardware. Both platforms also got software updates in the past few days, adding to their utility and (in the case of the telyHD) delivering tighter integration for iPhone and iPad users who want to share photos or control their chat settings from their mobile device.
The Biscotti TV Phone system, shown above, is simpler and more no-frills than the telyHD. Biscotti can chat video or audio to Mac or PC users via the Google Talk web client; to chat with iPhone or iPad users, the free (and unofficial) Vtok app fills the client slot. It also provides high-quality chats between Biscotti units.
The hardware is slim and graceful, about the size and shape of an Italian biscuit -- hence the name. A basic remote supports pan and zoom of the video camera, and the latest update gives you an automatic audio calibration routine to improve voice quality. The new software update also allows you to import your Google contacts for use on your Biscotti, but be warned that all your Google contacts will be loaded; the company's still working on a way to subset and manage those. The Biscotti may also try to auto-invite all those contacts to chat -- careful which button you click.
Networking on the Biscotti is Wi-Fi only (and if anyone invents a way to quickly enter WEP passwords using a four-way remote, they'd make a bundle), but the unit has a clever HDMI trick; it includes both input and output ports, so your cable or satellite box can plug right in and the signal will pass through. The Biscotti interface will stay out of the way until you get a call or use the remote. In fact, for some TVs, the Biscotti can turn them on directly so you can answer. Maybe that's not an ideal bedroom feature; likewise the auto-answer setting for key contacts, which lets you turn the Biscotti into a video room monitor by having it pick up immediately when you try to connect, could get weird in the wrong circumstances.
For Skype-centric families, the telyHD interoperates cleanly with the world's leading video and audio chat service, delivering 720p high definition video (note that Skype just updated its Mac client). Under the hood, the telyHD is an Android device; it's got more flexibility and possibilities than the Biscotti, with an app-centric development roadmap -- granted, you could get an iGoGo TV if you want to run Android apps on your HDTV, but that's some pretty scary stuff.
Already you can do things with pairs of telyHDs that you can't do with other systems: share photos (from an SD card) and leave video mail for watching later on. The telyHD sports an Ethernet port along with Wi-Fi networking, but it lacks the Biscotti's passthrough HDMI approach; you'll need to switch sources on your TV to see it.
This week's update to the telyHD platform, the Entertainment Suite, is unusual in that it's a paid (optional) add-on rather than a free version update; it's also targeted squarely at iPhone and iPad users. Entertainment Suite adds AirPlay mirroring for photos (TelyProjector), so iPhone users can simply mirror their images right into a video chat with Dad. The ES also includes access for remote-control apps (both iOS and Android), coming to the App Store and Google Play shortly; lastly, the upgrade includes a full web browser for the unit, giving owners access to websites and streaming video from all across the Internet. The Entertainment Suite pack can be trialed for 30 days before the one-time $49 licensing cost kicks in.
The long history of video calling might be filled with false starts and closed, proprietary systems, but if your gift list for Dad includes "more face to face time with the grandkids" then one of these systems may be just what you're looking for.