Today, my kid sister and her family moved to London, for at least the next two years. She has a great husband and two awesome kids, and even though they lived in New York City up until now, we’ve gone down to visit a ton over the past few years and have had a blast watching the kids grow up. So, needless to say, the idea of the whole bunch of them being so far away makes Shannon and me pretty sad, and we’ve been putting a lot of time into figuring out the best way to be able to video chat with them. When we’re just talking about us — Shannon and me chatting with Rachel and her husband and kids — things are simple, since we both have Macs with iSight cameras, and iChat couldn’t make things any easier. Of course, it’s now grown into more than just us; my parents and my brother and sister-in-law would also like to partake in the chats, and all of them are on Windows-based PCs. And as things turn out, it’s much more difficult to setup a Mac-to-PC video chat, and for it to match the quality of a pure Mac/iSight chat.

We started out by buying my parents a Logitech Quickcam for Notebooks Pro and installing AOL Instant Messenger. (We’re thinking about a Creative Live! Voice webcam for my brother and his wife.) I figured that things would just work fine, but quickly learned that that was an idiotic assumption; my first sign that there would be problems was when I noticed that the latest version of AIM, AIM Triton, is an enormously bloated bit of crapware that shares almost nothing in common with the application that we all know and tolerate. After getting through its painful setup process and ignoring all the entreaties to sign up for new services, I found the instant messaging component of Triton and added my sister to the buddy list. And despite being in the same house — and on the same network — as my sister’s Mac, I was unable to establish a video session between the two computers… because it turns out that Triton breaks all compatibility with iChat. Sigh.

Next, I tracked down and grabbed the older (and more compatible) version of AIM, and installed that. It had no troubles using the camera and establishing a video connection with my sister’s Mac, but the quality was middling at best (remember that we were even on the same network!), the video window was tiny, and there was no way to enlarge it. Double sigh.

Finally, I remembered that Trillian Pro, the alternative Windows instant messenger multi-client, had video chat abilities, so I downloaded and installed it. (Fortunately, I still have a license from back when my primary laptop was a PC.) It too was able to set up a video connection between the PC and Mac, and while the quality was equally middling, the window could be resized so that at least my parents didn’t have to squint to see that video. After a bit of optimizing the camera settings, we got a usable connection set up, so for now, that’s the solution we’re going with for all the non-Mac users.

But this begs the question: what are we missing? There have to be better options out there. For now, Skype only offers video on its Windows client, so that’s out. There are a couple of free video chat apps that work on both PCs and Macs (SightSpeed and Yak have been mentioned here and there), but I have no idea if they work any better than AIM’s offering. Likewise, there are a couple of commercial cross-platform clients (iSpQ, iVisit), but I’d have to know a lot more to recommend spending money on either to my family. And most importantly, any other solution needs to be reasonably easy to set up and to use when starting or accepting video chats.

So, does anyone have any thoughts?


I use sightspeed to carry on video communications with my non-mac family members. Video quality is decent, no where near isight quality, and the window is sizeable. I have tried almost every solution you listed above and this seems to work the best for us at this point. I am, however, anxiously awaiting a version of Skype for the Mac with video chat. Does anyone know if that is in the works?

• Posted by: Duane Patterson on May 26, 2006, 8:31 AM

I, too, tried everything you describe above (including all the not-free programs that had trial periods, for a total of about 11 different software packages installed and tested) and decided to live with the older version of Windows AIM and iChat unti Skype for Mac with video comes out. The Trillian frame rate was just too slow.

Skype is indeed working on a Mac version with video—they are also constantly being harassed by impatient Mac users, which is a very good thing.

To me, it looks like Apple oughta release iChat for Windows like they did with iTunes—they’d knock a huge hole in that market, especially if they keep the AIM compatibility and come up with iSight for Windows, too. Because that was the other problem: I had to try four different cameras before I found one that worked well on Windows. The one we chose is still awful and nowhere near as good as the iSight. Its main advantage was price.

At one point I seriously considered installing Darwin streaming server on both ends to see if that was any better, but that was partly about just wanting to get my hands really geeky dirty.

• Posted by: Grant Barrett [TypeKey Profile Page] on May 26, 2006, 10:04 AM

Grant, the one thing that reassures me that perhaps they’ll someday be an iSight-like camera for the PC is that the iSights that are built into Macs now — the iMacs, and the new MacBooks — are all high-speed USB devices rather than FireWire. (I’m not sure why that reassures me, but it does.)

In addition, both the camera that my parents have (the QuickCam for Notebooks Pro) and the one my brother’s thinking of getting (the Creative Live! Voice Webcam) should be pretty good quality, although I’m pretty sure both are based on CMOS sensors rather than the higher-quality CCD that’s in the iSight. Alas… I guess I’ll just hold out hope that something better will come along for the PC.

• Posted by: Jason on May 26, 2006, 10:14 AM

This article has a good point. There really is no excuse for the lack of interoperability in this day and age. The only half way decent solutions I have come across are two third party MSN clients, Mercury and aMSN. Neither are very nice, but both have webcam support that is bearable.

I’m also awaiting Skype..

• Posted by: Mike on May 26, 2006, 11:30 AM

PS: I’ve got a brand-new MacBook running Parallels, the Windows virtualization software, but alas! It doesn’t recognize the built-in video camera.

• Posted by: Grant Barrett [TypeKey Profile Page] on May 26, 2006, 3:11 PM

My sister’s computer guru sent me this as I live in Rio (there’s only one!) and am constantly seraching for a video conference tool. My business partner and I iChat every morning and it works just fine. But with family in the US, friends all over, and a son in Kabul (yes, that one. CT Nat. Guard) I’m on the lookout for ANYthing that works Mac to PC. Son Bill uses Yahoo - anything stirring in that dept. Someone has told me that MSN has a beta version out there.

I agree that we oughta keep up the pressure on Skype, ut I think we ought to hammer Apple too. Their iPod and Mac Mini experience ought to have convinced them that there is a big “crossover” market out there.

• Posted by: Peter Warner on May 27, 2006, 11:02 AM

I haven’t tried it between Mac and PC, but Yahoo Messenger has served my needs on PC.

• Posted by: M Sexta on May 28, 2006, 2:06 PM

Sightspeed is the winner: no bloat, no spyware, no machine takeover, no terrible adverts. Paid version for multiway chats. Although the video quality is not as good as iChatAV between Macs, it does Just Work, which is the main thing.

• Posted by: Paul Kent on May 30, 2006, 4:07 PM

You could be a good son, and buy your parents a Mac. They will thank you for it frequently. That’s what I did.

• Posted by: Robert Brown on May 30, 2006, 5:15 PM

Naaaah, they’d curse me — they’re not Mac people, and have no desire to be.

• Posted by: Jason on May 30, 2006, 5:32 PM

I have lept through the same hoops, several times, and have given up.
The product that I got most success from was squid [?] which is cross platform, but commercial, and at the time required manual firewall configuration ( not easy 2 continents away ).
I even tried quicktime streaming server, but its not really targeted at the home user :)
I have actually given up. Im just waiting for Skype video to come out on the Mac.

One thing I didnt try, but wanted to, was flash media server. Flash can access your webcam and mic and the media server lets people group conference. Last time I looked the server was windows only, and I couldnt a publicly available one. A quick search now reveals
which looks like it might work.

• Posted by: Jon on Jun 1, 2006, 12:19 PM

Try the new sightspeed version 4.6, and enable the beta codec (on both ends). It should be at least as good as/better than ichat video wise. Of course I might be a little biased on that mark… let me know how it works out if you do.

• Posted by: tom harper on Jun 4, 2006, 2:03 AM
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