When I first switched to Mac over three years ago I played with iChat and relatively quickly dismissed it as a cute toy. The cartoon bubble discussion was cute but not compact enough for my relatively heavy IM usage. The video chatting was cool but after playing with the effects button and carrying on a video chat while riding a moving roller coaster I quickly concluded that this was a fluffy consumer novelty and moved on to other applications for my business needs.
Researching alternatives to Skype changed all that.
The more I played around with iChat, the more I learned about some interesting features, especially if the people I was communicating with also had iChat available to them. More and more of my friends and business associates now have Macs than ever before and iChat is already installed so it's really not that hard to leverage. For the most part if you see the Video Conference image:
to the right of their name in your buddy list, you can leverage all of the features below:
As a person that provides technical assistance to my family and friends, being able to trouble shoot a problem without having to go to their computer is a huge help, especially when they are hundreds or thousands of miles away. Having the ability to share a screen and actually manipulate it as though it's local is also great for demonstrating something I've built locally to one of my colleagues.
With iChat you can initiate either a "Share my screen" or a "Ask to share their screen" connection. While connected a voice chat channel is opened and you can speak over it while you work. To start up a screen sharing session, Control-click (or Right-click) a buddy name in your iChat list and select the sharing direction you want.
While the screen is active you can jump between the two by clicking on the screen in the lower-right corner.
A couple of notes: You can end the session by closing the small box in the lower right. This will also terminate the voice session. Pressing Command-Q or Command-W will not end the session—those commands will be sent to the remote screen and likely close the current application or window that's open.
With iChat you can link up to four people together in a video conference. Though obviously limited to a very small group, having four people able to easily see one another and carry on a discussion is amazing for an application that's simply included with OS X. Though Skype now offers video conferencing with up to eight people, it requires a paid subscription in order to use it.
Once you establish a video connection with a person you can add others to your chat by clicking the Plus symbol at the bottom of the video chat window and adding another buddy. If you are communicating with people using AIM accounts you can even join a chat room and keep a running text log as your meeting progresses.
Another great little feature of iChat is the iChat Theater. Once you have a video chat running with someone, click the Plus symbol at the bottom of the window and select the option to share a file through iChat Theater (or simply drag the file to the video chat window). The image of the person you are video chatting with drops down into the corner and the image or file you are presenting takes over the main part of the screen. This is great for reviewing images or paging through a Keynote presentation. There are reports that the next version of OS X (Lion) will support sharing web pages.
iChat Theater also works when doing multi-person chat; as a presenter your multi-chat window is taken over by whatever it is you are sharing, as you can see below:
When you have a single or multi-user video chat running you will see a Mute button in the lower portion of the screen. Clicking that will mute your audio, but not the audio on the other end. As a result, if you click Mute your chat partner will continue to be both seen and heard and your video will continue without sound. If the other person mutes the sound, don't say anything stupid like "wow, when is this going to be over?".
Holding down the Option key transforms the Mute button into a Pause button. This both mutes the audio from your end as well as freezes the video from your end. Like Mute only, this only applies to your feed; the other end is still visible and audible.
For years now my friend an Mac super-user Ast Moore has been telling me I should be using iChat instead of Adium. Now I'm starting to see why.
Got a video / screen / file sharing tip with iChat? Please drop a note in the comments!