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Video Calls From the Couch

Making a phone call pales to these high-tech communication alternatives.

En español | A wave of new Web video chat products lets you move the conversation from the chair in front of your computer to the couch in front of your big-screen TV. Now, you can have a much more comfortable place to chat live with far-flung friends and family. What's more, you can get the whole crew into the picture, tough to do while huddling around a PC screen.

Pricey, but really nice

The top-of-the-line offering comes from Cisco, which is well-known for providing videoconferencing systems for corporate boardrooms. They've adapted this technology for a living-room system called ūmi (as in "you-me"). The ūmi system requires a high-definition TV with HDMI input and a high-speed Internet connection. It includes a camera with built-in microphones that sits on top of your television, a remote control and a box that connects to the Web (through a wired or wireless network) and your TV's HDMI port. You get a picture with the highest available HDTV resolution, 1080p (same as a Blu-ray movie) and excellent sound reproduction. The ūmi has a zoom lens that lets you frame a tight close-up of that new knickknack you want to show off, and a video mail system for leaving and receiving messages. You can even record a video and share it via Facebook, YouTube or e-mail. And if you want to connect with someone who's sitting at a webcam-equipped computer, ūmi is compatible with Google Video Chat, which works on both PCs and Macs. This high-quality experience does carry a high price, though; the equipment sells for $599, and there's an additional $24.99 monthly service fee.

a family makes a video call from the couch

Cisco's ūmi video calling system allows families to stay in touch. — Courtesy of Cisco Systems, Inc.

Lower cost, video chat options

If you're thinking of trading up to a new HDTV, both Panasonic and Samsung offer Internet-connected models that support video calling via optional camera accessories (about $150). Both systems use the popular Skype video chat service, which also offers connections to computer users, with no charge for the privilege. Panasonic has the edge when it comes to resolution at 720p (the lower of two high-definition standards), while Samsung sticks with standard definition. Both have multiple microphones, though, to pick up voices clearly even when you're speaking from across the room.

Another high-definition option is the Logitech Revue system, which runs Google TV software to deliver nearly everything on the Web to your TV. The $299 system also plays music, video and photos stored on a networked computer or a USB memory stick, and supports video calling with an optional camera accessory.  

Setting up video chat on the Revue is simple: just plug the $150 TV Cam into one of the two USB ports and launch the provided software. You can move the camera up, down, right and left using the remote, and while the zoom feature isn't as impressive as the ūmi (the Revue has digital zoom, which can't match the picture quality of umi's optical zoom lens), it's still handy for framing the shot. The 720p video can be shared with computer users who install the free Logitech Vid software, which will work with any brand webcam.

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