Not too long ago, videoconferencing was the exclusive domain of dedicated and expensive rooms, balky equipment, and heavy per-minute charges for ISDN time just to see herky-jerky video. Today, anyone with a computer and a webcam can conduct impromptu video chats, Skype calls, or Oovoo chats with friends.
However, you still need a computer and a camera. Is there an easier solution, one that isn't tied to a computer desktop or laptop? Enter the Biscotti TV Phone.
The Biscotti device turns your HD television into an HD videophone. With Biscotti, you can video chat with other Biscotti users and with computer or mobile users running Google Talk or Gmail with the voice and video plugin. It might be a decent choice for a bring-your-own-videoconferencing solution, especially if the company has an HDTV in a conference room. At $199 per unit with no recurring service charges it is certainly an inexpensive solution.
The Biscotti arrives in a surprisingly small box stating, "Created by loveable scientists in Texas." The box contains the Biscotti device, a small power brick, a "mount kit", and a small remote control. The device is about the size, shape and heft of, well, a biscotti. The mount kit is simply a pair of sticky pads to hold the Biscotti in place, and a pair of cable ties to neaten things up. It does not come with an HDMI cable--you'll have to buy your own to connect the Biscotti to your TV.
Installation and setup are simple. The instructions tell you to mount the device on top of your TV. If you do, when you look at the TV you will be looking right at the camera. Because my TV is wall mounted and a bit too high, and the cables were not long enough to reach, I instead mounted the Biscotti on top of my stack of AV receiver/DVD/DVR equipment just below the set. This worked out just fine.
I initially connected the device to a spare HDMI port on my TV (one that's usually used for a gaming console). I tried other configurations as well--more about them later.
Setup is a bit of a pain, but fortunately you only need to do it once. The device needs to connect to a Wi-Fi network, so you will need to select a network (or enter an SSID), and you will need to enter a password. You'll also need to create a Biscotti account, and will have to enter a password and email address for that as well. The user interface for this is clumsy: it's an on-screen keyboard that you need to scroll around in to select one character at a time. I managed to fat-finger the remote and hit the "back" button instead of the down arrow once, and needed to re-enter an address from scratch. But that was a small annoyance.
The software designers were smart in adding a nice little feature: reminding you to write down your account name and password before pressing the button to continue.
The device lets you take a picture of yourself for your profile, and that gives you your first look at the Biscotti camera. The camera has a software pan and zoom with a fairly impressive range. Picture quality was quite good and looked very sharp on my HD screen.
When not in a call, the Biscotti displays a strip of icons that shows your account photo and selections for your contact list, making calls, or changing settings.
Setting up a call is as easy as making an entry of a Biscotti ID or Google chat ID into the Biscotti contact list, and pressing a button on the remote to connect. As I only had one Biscotti unit, I tested it by making calls to several Google video chat users, both locally and across the country.
The video quality is good if not great. Some artifacts and pixelation occur if there's a lot of motion, but if your subject is not moving around much, the appearance is quite good. To be fair to the Biscotti folks, this might be a function of the Wi-Fi speeds on one or both ends of the call.
Audio quality was excellent, even during a call where I thought I might have some problems--from New Jersey to a Wi-Fi-connected Google-chatting friend in a coffee shop in the Denver suburbs. In all my test calls the audio was perfectly synched with the video.
When you are in a call, you have the option of keeping a small window open in the corner of your screen that displays what the local camera is sending to the other party. You can use the Biscotti remote to pan and zoom the local camera very easily. The audio and video in this small "local view" window are slightly out of sync, but that doesn't seem to be the case for the remote end of the call, and it's not very noticeable unless you look right at the inset.
I did notice that the Biscotti would sometimes forget the pan and zoom settings between calls, but not all the time.
I tried following the manufacturer's recommendation of placing the Biscotti between my set top box and my television so I could make calls while watching TV. This configuration worked quite nicely. You're alerted to an incoming call with a small popup in the upper right of your TV screen; to accept the call you simply press the Biscotti remote button. At the end of the call, the Biscotti drops off and you return to watching TV.
I attempted to connect the Biscotti on the path between my home theatre AV tuner/amplifier and the television, and was unable to do so. I would have liked to be able to watch TV with the full home-theater experience, and then perhaps run the Biscotti call audio through the same system, but I could not make that work.
At one point--not while in a call--I was prompted to take a firmware upgrade over the air, which I did. Download, installation, and restart were flawless.
There is at least one similar product, the Tely Labs telyHD. We haven't tested the telyHD, which appears similar to the Biscotti but uses Skype for communication rather than Google Talk, and costs $50 more.
Overall, the Biscotti impressed me. It's a fairly powerful system in a small package, easy to install and use, and available at a reasonable price. I liked that there are no recurring monthly service fees to use Biscotti. It seems ideal for family and friends video calls, and might even be useful in small-business settings that want a low-cost tool for an HD video chat.
Name: Biscotti TV Phone
The Biscotti is an inexpensive way to turn an HDTV into a videoconferencing station. It's a perfectly reasonable solution for connecting homes and offices.Price: $199
- Fairly easy to set up and use.
- Good video if subjects remain still; excellent audio.
- HDMI cable not included.
- So-so video quality if subjects are moving.
Jerry Ryan has done software development, technical sales, and management at Bell Labs, Lucent, Avaya and Motorola. If you'd like to reconnect, or just say hello, send an email to email@example.com.