Although Skype video chat has become a popular tool for people seeking face-time communication on computers, the webcams on PCs don't really lend themselves to group chat- - if you've ever tried to crowd several family members around a PC, you know it's tough to get everyone in the frame. The TelyHD from Tely Labs addresses the search for family-friendly videoconferencing with a Skype-enabled, Android-based network device that doesn't use a PC at all: Instead, it takes advantage of your HDTV's big screen and bundles a webcam (with a microphone and speaker) that can capture high-definition images of several people seated on a living-room sofa.
At $249 (as of January 6, 2012), the TelyHD is less expensive than some other living-room videoconferencing systems we've seen (most notably the Cisco Umi, which required subscribing to a proprietary service and is no longer being sold to consumers). Even more important, the TelyHD communicates with any Skype client, so you can use it even if the party at the other end doesn't have the device.
I tried out a TelyHD with both another TelyHD user and a Skype PC caller, and while the quality of the video wasn't what I'd hoped for--the large images appeared worse than the small images shown on a laptop, looking generally fuzzy, frequently pixelated, and occasionally frozen--the product generally performed as billed. In addition to enabling group video chat, the TelyHD has some Tely-to-Tely features, including support for video voicemail and a cute photo-sharing feature that lets you upload JPG images to another party.
The TelyHD is a black cylinder roughly the size of a skinny paper towel roll, with an adjustable folding bracket for mounting on top of a flat-screen TV (I had to move my Wii receiver to install the TelyHD). The webcam lens faces front; on the back are an HDMI port for connecting to the HDTV with an included cable; an ethernet port for connecting to the network (a wired hookup is recommended, but 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi is also supported); a port for the AC adapter; and a USB port and SD Card slot for the image-sharing feature.
Once you've connected the HDMI and power cables, the TelyHD automatically launches its guided setup routine (you must activate the device's HDMI input to see the Tely user interface). You control all aspects of the TelyHD using the provided remote, which is about the size of a business card and has standard navigation buttons (four arrow keys surrounding a selection key) as well as menu and call-hangup buttons.
In the guided setup, you adjust the screen footprint of the TelyHD's image, set up Wi-Fi (if need be), and then set up your Skype account using an on-screen keyboard. The unit will save your Skype ID and login details so you don't have to tap them in again.
The default screen layout is thoughtfully designed, with help (usually showing what the remote can do) in the left pane and actual content on the right. After setup, if you've input your Skype information, the right screen will show your contacts as a series of circles that you can scroll through horizontally. To initiate a call, you simply navigate to a contact and press the select button.
The remote's menu button brings up context-sensitive options in a strip at the bottom of the screen. If you aren't on a call, you can opt to record a video message, toggle between displaying all contacts and only those that are online, access account and device settings, or sign out. If you are on a call, the menu lets you mute the audio, put audio and video on hold, initiate photo sharing, and adjust the image by zooming in or out and panning and tilting.
The pan-and-tilt capabilities don't really move the lens, however: To use them, you must first zoom in, and then they merely show the pixels (at the top, bottom, or sides, depending on which arrow key you tap) that became hidden when you applied the zoom. In general, the TelyHD's camera could be better.
You get some additional settings; for example, you can change the default screen background, or adjust for different types of room lighting. In my tests, bad lighting looked really bad, making subjects go dark. Tely's generally excellent printed user guide makes a point of recommending a well-lit room.
The TelyHD adjusts the screen images based on bandwidth, and it takes a few seconds to begin streaming images in high definition even if the broadband support is present (Tely recommends a speed of at least 1 megabit per second on both ends of the call). But although my Comcast broadband bandwidth handily exceeded the minimum (my speed tests showed downloads running at about 6.5 mbps and uploads of 2.5 mbps to 3.5 mbps), I still encountered fuzzy and occasionally blocky images. Interestingly, images of PC callers generally looked better than the image of the friend who called using another TelyHD, which may speak to the superior graphics capabilities of a PC and/or a PC-based webcam.
In use, I found that the TelyHD did a good job with audio. The device's microphone ably picked up my voice; it sends call audio through your TV's sound system, but it has its own internal speaker that rings to alert you to calls (otherwise you might be watching TV on a different input and hear nothing).
I performed most of my tests with the TelyHD connected via ethernet to a HomePlug AV switch; efforts to use the TelyHD with Wi-Fi resulted in significant image- and audio-quality deterioration (no surprise, since dozens of 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks compete for bandwidth in my downtown San Francisco neighborhood). Take seriously Tely's recommendation to use a wired connection if at all possible.
Overall, the TelyHD is an improvement over PC Skype calls for small groups, especially if you want to share photos as well as chat. (High-def images may take a few seconds to upload, but they look great on a big screen.) Some connected TVs are starting to deliver Skype support, but typically you have to buy a webcam accessory anyway, and of course many people who have invested in HDTVs over the past five or six years don't have a built-in Skype option. For the TelyHD to be truly compelling, it needs to deliver better image quality - it doesn't hold a candle to Cisco's Umi in that regard - but it's certainly a promising start.