It might not have shown up on many digital watches yet, but video chat is certainly no longer just the stuff of Dick Tracy fiction. Beyond forthcoming video chat features for the Facebook and Google+ (Plus) social networks, students and other consumers — as well as businesses — already enjoy an ever widening range of real choices for face-to-face communications from PCs, Macs, iPhones, and Android smartphones. Which video chat options are best for you?
Through video chat, you can conduct remote discussion groups around any topic, hold team meetings with farflung co-workers, or just stay in touch with friends and family in a more personal way than emails (or even phone calls) will allow.
For students, video chat can come very much in handy, whether for group study sessions from various houses or dorm rooms, virtually “attending” a sibling’s birthday party while away at school, or “dating” a significant other from a smartphone when traveling on vacation.
Yet, your experiences with video chat can run the gamut from quite fun to extremely frustrating. This can depend on which services you’re using or whether you’re trying to connect from a Windows PC to some other type of device, such as a Mac or a smartphone or tablet.
Skype, an original maven of VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) calling, has since expanded into video chat in a large way. Other video chat services include Tinychat, fring, Tango, ooVoo, and GoogleTalk, a feature of Google’s GMail service. With certain exceptions, these services are free.
Meanwhile, Skype is now working with FaceBook on a video chat app for that social networking site. An emerging rival to FaceBook, Google+, is set to include a video chat app called Hangout. Not publicly available yet, both of these apps are now being tested by early users.
Video Chat Basics
The new breed of video chat services and apps are cloud-based, across the board. Before using a chat service, you typically go to a Web site, sign up, download and install some software onto your PC or smartphone (alternatively, the smartphone apps are generally available from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market, too).
For rather obvious reasons, you and your contacts also need video chat-enabled Web cameras in place. If your PC didn’t come with a Webcam, you can buy an adequate one — complete with a microphone — for as little as $30 — and pop it into your USB port.
Most higher-end Webcams (and some lower-end ones) today also support 1080p resolution, for full HDTV video output. Many Web sites let you test your camera and mike before attempting a real world chat. These dedicated Webcams also tend to come with simple, Web-enabled video chat software of their own.
How To Choose Services and Apps
Video chat offerings can vary a lot across several dimensions, including the number of simultaneous chatters allowed, overall ease-of-use, and the nature of supported PC and smartphone operating systems. Before deciding which services and apps to try, it can be helpful to ask yourself three simple questions.
Question #1 How many people will be in on the chat?
Many video chat services support only two simultaneous users. While that might be enough to meet some of your needs, there could be times when you want to make a video tie-in across a larger group, for a team meeting or a long-distance reunion of high school friends, for example.
Skype’s video chat is one offering with a group chat option. There’s a catch here, though. Although video chat is free between two devices, group chat is available only to Skype Premium customers. Skype offers both day passes and monthly subscriptions for Premium. Ordinarily, subscriptions cost $8.99 per month, but special promotions can be found.
Some other Web sites, though, have come to the rescue with free group chat. A site called ooVoo supports video chats between any three devices in the following categories: Windows PCs, Macs, iPhones, and Android phones.
Tinychat, fring, and Tango also provide free group chat for mobile devices. Tinychat and fring support Windows PCs, as well, and Tango is about to do so, too.
Tinychat, a really “sticky” site with standout color graphics, uses a chatroom model to let up to a dozen people communicate with each other through video, audio, and Twitter text. You can also view recorded celebrity chats (as in “Big Sean Tinychats with Fans & AMP Radio”), check out “activity near you,” and meet new people by joining live chats already in progress.
“Hey guys, gonna be live on tiny chat in about 30 mins. see you soon :),” texted one user, in a list of tweets running down a panel on the right-hand side of the home page.
Although the new Skype-enabled video chat feature in Facebook will support only two devices, the Hangout feature in the upcoming Google Plus will let up to ten folks chat at the same time, all in the same space. According to reports from some early users, Hangout is also particularly good at figuring out which person is talking, and at focusing on them until another person starts speaking.
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