April 5, 2007

Ekiga videophone gets you connected

Author: Joe Barr

Linux has come a long way in a lot of areas, but if my experience is an indicator, we're not much further along in the use of personal webcams today than we were five years ago. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to use Ekiga (formerly GnomeMeeting) as a video phone, I finally prevailed and got Ekiga working with both sound and video. The problem -- as always seems the case with computer peripherals under Linux -- begins with drivers, or rather, the lack of drivers.

I had read somewhere that the Logitech Quickcam Notebook Pro was supported under Linux, so I decided to order one and give it a try. Unfortunately, while some of the Logitech Quickcam Notebook Pro cameras are supported, the newer models, like the one I bought, are not.

For my next try, instead of finding a camera online and wondering whether it was supported, I selected a camera I found on a list of supported devices (registration required) and then tried to find it available for sale. As a rule of thumb, the newer the device, the less likely it is to have a Linux driver, and the older the device, the harder it is to find it for sale.

I had better luck with the second camera I tried, a Creative Labs Ultra NX. At first Ekiga wouldn't work with it either, though when I tested the camera using the Camorama webcam application, it worked just fine.
Armed with the knowledge that the camera did work with Linux, I found that if I selected V4L (Video for Linux) to manage the video device instead of its successor V4L2, which is the default, it worked.

Ekiga provides both VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and videoconferencing and uses both SIP and H.323 protocols. The Ekiga Configuration Wizard walks you through defining such things as your sound and video devices. The Wizard allows you to test audio and video settings as you go, so you should end up with a working Ekiga configuration at the end of the process.

During the configuration, you can register for a free SIP account with Ekiga.net. Having a SIP account, whether with Ekiga.net or another service, is like having your name listed in the phone book so that others can find your SIP address as easily as they could find your phone number.

Registration is fairly painless and pretty quick; I had a verified account in just a couple of minutes. Note that you do not have to use Ekiga.net, you are free to use any SIP provider you like.

The Ekiga UI is full-featured and complete. Along the top, a Menu bar offers selections for Call, Edit, View, Tools, and Help. The Call button allows you to connect or disconnect a call, and to set your softphone status to Available, Auto Answer, Do Not Disturb, or Forward. Click the Edit option and you can run the Configuration Wizard or set account settings and preferences.

The View option allows you to choose to display the UI as a softphone, as a Videophone, or as a complete device with both dialpad and video display. In addition to the basic UI, you can also display one of the following: Dialpad, Video Settings, Audio Settings, or Statistics.

My first call was to a coworker in Florida who was running XMeeting on an Apple Power Mac G5. I used the headset and microphone that came with the Creative Ultra NX, but left my speakers plugged in. Big mistake -- the sound from the speakers caused a lot of echoing, so I unplugged them and used the headset instead.

About Ekiga's author

Ekiga project leader Damien Sandras originally wrote GnomeMeeting for his thesis at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He is also one of the founders of the annual FOSDEM (Free and Open Source Software Developers European Meeting) gathering.

GnomeMeeting was originally released in 2001. Damien says he changed the name last year from GnomeMeeting to Ekiga because people associated the GnomeMeeting name with NetMeeting. Since NetMeeting is dead, many felt that the protocol NetMeeting used -- H.323 -- was dead as well. When the Ekiga developers were ready to add support for SIP to the project, they felt it was the perfect time to reflect the changes inside with a new name. Ekiga takes its name from an ancient communications technique used in the country of Cameroon in western Africa.

Damien says the developers are working to add support for the IAX protocol to the existing SIP and H.323, and are redoing the user interface. The new UI will be based on a user's contact list; users will be able to see at a glance whether their contacts are online, on a call, or unavailable.

Video quality was very good, the only caveat being that when my colleague moved quickly, I saw pixellation. I could hear my colleague well, but she complained of low volume from my end. This proved to be a problem with my audio set up, not a fault of SIP or Ekiga. I corrected it by activating Mic Boost in my sound card via using the alsamixer. But as good as the audio quality was at my end, it was not as good as I remember Skype being a couple of years ago, when I first tried SIP.

In addition to being compatible with XMeeting on the Mac, and of course with other Ekiga users, Ekiga is known to work as a video phone with NetMeeting and Windows Messenger on Windows, and in fact, there is a beta version of Ekiga available for the Windows platform.

Ekiga.net

After I hung up, I went looking for other people to talk to on Ekiga.net, which provides access to other registered Ekiga users. After logging in, you can modify your account settings, add names and addresses to your address book, or browse the membership. At present there are more than 90,000 individuals registered. If you click "Show online members only," you'll see a more manageable user list of about 500 individuals.

Documentation for Ekiga comes in the form of a PDF user manual. Additional support can be found on IRC in the #ekiga channel at irc.freenode.net.

Ekiga lets you make PC-to-phone calls, or receive calls made to a phone number, but you'll need to sign up with a telephony provider. Though you can pick any provider, Ekiga defaults to Diamond Worldwide Communication Service; you can sign up with them by clicking Tools on the Menu bar and selecting PC-to-Phone account. Be sure to complete the sign up process, because if you don't, even though you've gone as far as to make a payment, you still won't have an account. In the calls I made from Ekiga to regular phone numbers, I could not tell the difference between them and regular calls.

Ekiga.org's Contribute page notes that the project needs help with testing, coding, and documenting, and welcomes donations in the form of hardware and money. If you feel, as I do, that the free software world needs to continue to move forward in the area of multimedia and telephony over the Internet, consider helping out in one of the ways noted.

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