Beginning Mac: iChat

ichatA wide range of different applications and protocols exist for communicating via voice and instant messaging, with some being far more popular than others. OS X comes bundled with iChat, a client offering a number of great features. While not perfect for everyone, it does a good job of providing a ready-to-go instant messaging app, complete with powerful support for audio, video and screen/application sharing.

This overview will walk you through setting up various accounts through iChat, using the basic features, and even dabbling with some high quality video conferencing!

Getting Started & Adding Accounts

picture-33When opening iChat for the first time, you’ll be asked to set up your profile. If you already have an account with MobileMe,, AIM, Jabber, or Google Talk, you can integrate it with iChat. It’s possible to use other protocols through iChat, but the solution is a little more complicated. For more information, this tutorial is useful.

Certain advanced features are only available when using an AIM or MobileMe/.Mac account, so if possible using either of these is preferable. After adding your account, you’ll be given the option to encrypt your messaging which is advisable if possible. When done, you’ll be presented with a concluding screen which encourages to get started using the app.


Basic Messaging


The basic screen for iChat is very simple, just showing a list of your “buddies” along with their audio/video capabilities. Double clicking a contact will initiate a text conversation with them. If you haven’t yet added any contacts, doing so is a simple process — all you need is their MobileMe or AIM email address. Click Buddies > Add Buddy from the menu bar and follow the simple instructions that follow.

Conducting an IM conversation is simple and effective, with each response taking the form of a speech bubble:


Multiple people can easily be added to a conversation through clicking Buddies > Invite to Chat, and each individual has their own colour scheme and icon to easily differentiate between participants. If you’d like to keep copies of all your conversations, a preference setting can automatically save chat transcripts to a designated folder on your hard drive — worth doing if you plan on holding an important conversation or meeting through the app.

If you’re holding multiple chat sessions, these can be organized into tabs to save having several windows open at a time. Transferring files is also simple, supporting drag and drop from anywhere in OS X.

Audio & Video Conferencing

Obviously instant messaging is great for certain scenarios, but in the age of ubiquitous broadband and in-built iSights it seems a little dated! iChat has evolved rapidly in recent releases to offer a comprehensive set of audio and video conferencing features. Initiating a video call is as simple as clicking the video icon next to a buddies name (providing you both have a working microphone and webcam). If a webcam isn’t installed, the system will fall back to audio only.


Just as with instant messaging, multiple chat participants are supported through clicking Buddies > Invite to Video Chat. In typical Mac style, the display changes to create a dynamic video ‘room’ complete with reflections and visual effects.

The fun doesn’t end there, however. The latest version of iChat has a feature called ‘video backdrops,’ making it easy (supposedly…) to convince people you’re chatting from the Eiffel Tower, under the sea, or from the moon. You can also create your own custom backdrops with your own photographs. It can lead to some really fun effects — I don’t think this guy was actually sitting in front of a waterfall:


As with chat transcript logging, it’s also simple to save a copy of an audio or video chat. iChat will automatically notify buddies that you’ll be recording the session and ask for their permission. Chats are saved in an iTunes compatible format for later viewing on your Mac or iPod.

Sharing Content

The ability to transmit video and high quality images also leads to other uses. iChat in OS X Leopard introduced functionality for conducting presentations remotely via Keynote, sharing a photo slideshow with a buddy, or even a full screen movie. Any file which can be viewed through Quick Look on OS X is able to be broadcast and shared via iChat.

Sharing your screen is also possible, enabling remote desktop control through iChat while simultaneously chatting to each other through an audio link. Great for helping out your technically-challenged uncle without needing to be physically present — perfect!

Alternative Applications

As with most OS X features, there are a number of other applications capable of performing similar functions. While none have quite the same level of integration with Leopard itself, they excel in other areas. A few others to consider are:

  • Skype – Great for video, audio and IM with other Skype users, and also allows you to make low cost international calls. No integration with other protocols, however, and multiple video chatting isn’t supported.
  • Adium – A great tool for basic instant messaging, supporting every different protocol under the sun. The interface is highly customizable and a number of useful plugins extend its functionality.
  • AOL Instant Messenger / MSN Messenger for Mac – Both of these are the official releases from the relevant protocol. Great for supporting more features of that particular system, but fairly incompatible with other users.
  • There are far too many more to mention. A full list can be found here with other notable apps including Proteus, Fire and Colloquy for IRC.


Instant messaging has come a long, long way since the early days of IRC. iChat does a great job of offering powerful and innovative functionality, but may not fully support the network which many of your colleagues or friends use. However, for a free application bundled with OS X, the sharing and collaboration features are impressive.

If you have any further questions (or use a different app I haven’t mentioned) do let me know. Also, if you somehow manage to convince a family member that you’re chatting to them from the Eiffel Tower I’d be fascinated to hear about it!

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