By Dustin Sklavos
Gone are the days when videochats and videophone calls are cutting-edge, high-cost CEO-only affairs; there are now several free videoconference applications available to the average consumer. But which offers the best bang for zero bucks? We break it down in this buyer’s guide.
The biggest lesson learned in my long journey reviewing video chat services might actually be just how far Adobe’s Flash has come, to the point where it integrates webcam management fairly well and allows many of these videochat services to operate essentially platform-independently (so long as that platform supports Flash). Steve Jobs can talk all he wants about how irrelevant Flash is or is going to be, but right now it’s a wonderful enabler and a means of improving communication between people.
Another major boon to video chat has been the proliferation of notebooks. While this has certainly been going on for a while, you’d now be hard-pressed to find a notebook that doesn’t come with a webcam and microphone built in. Many USB webcams also include microphones built in, and failing that, you can always just plug a microphone or mic-equipped headset into the computer. Suffice to say, everything seems to have fallen into place, and judging by how many of these video chat options are working out these days, it looks like the technology is really running smoothly.
Of course, if Apple’s engineers have taught us anything, it’s that functionality is no good without smart design. Even when all of the contenders reviewed essentially worked and without too much hassle, interfaces and feature bloat became a major issue. So unlike my previous software roundups, this one was relatively easy in terms of whom to hand out the prizes to.
THE DOWNLOADABLES: OOVOO AND PALTALK
I’m pretty quick to dispatch downloadable client-based services as worst of breed, and there’s a reason: You just don’t have to build apps this way. The problem is compounded by the fact that both of these services have a massive number of problems their browser-based competition doesn’t share.
Where to begin? OoVoo’s pay-based service schemes are needlessly complex. The client is feature-bloated, the user interface is unintuitive, and it’s too flashy. Mac OS X and now Windows 7 both get by on being fairly simple interfaces with simple functionality. There’s a little sizzle, but it’s in service of something other than just making your computer look cool.
On the other side we have Paltalk, which is just plain badly designed. Paltalk offers browser-based functionality, but that feature is essentially bugged, not working with the Flash 10.1 beta (the beta that I have had no problems with anywhere else) and telling you that you need to install Flash 10. The client itself crashed on my desktop, windows didn’t scale right, and even the site didn’t seem to function properly. I guess in their haste to create a new social networking system, the creators probably assumed that if MySpace never worked right, Paltalk didn’t have to either.
Ultimately neither of these is really worth your time, and if you must have client-based video chat, there’s always Skype or Yahoo.
CONSUMER-GRADE: TINYCHAT AND TOKBOX
Tinychat and Tokbox were both clearly designed for the casual user, and if I had to choose one to recommend I’d probably go with Tinychat. Tokbox wasn’t terrible, but Tinychat — when you know what to actually choose on the main screen — is pretty mind-bogglingly simple in that it doesn’t even require signing up for your own account. The flipside is that the page design leaves a lot to be desired, with chat client windows that require too much room.
While venturing through these services for this series of reviews, part of my goal was to see just how simple and streamlined they could make the whole solution. Tinychat won by not even requiring you to sign up for their service and producing very simple URLs to link to other people for video chatting.
On the other hand, I can certainly understand why someone might want to use Tokbox. Though it requires signing up for an account, configuration was simple and it can integrate other chat services. If that all-in-one approach works for you, Tokbox offers a better video chat interface than Tinychat does.
BEST OF BREED: ADOBE CONNECTNOW
Adobe’s ConnectNow service benefits largely from having a more enterprise-driven design mentality. It may not necessarily be the first service you think of when you want to chat with your family on the other side of the continent/planet, but the ease of use, slick interface design, and easy-to-communicate chat URLs made it my favorite out of the bunch.
While many of these services “just work,” ConnectNow has a clean interface that makes it easy to configure and get rolling with. There isn’t much about it that’s terribly confusing, the icons all make sense, and it has the exact features you want from it: A chat window, multi-user video chat, and screen sharing. Unlike most of the other services, it doesn’t mandate the use of a buddy list and it doesn’t really ask that you become a part of its social network. ConnectNow is beautifully streamlined, and I will undoubtedly wind up using it for future business.
TOO MUCH SOCIAL NETWORKING
If there’s one thing I need to call out all of these services for — except Adobe’s ConnectNow — it’s their intense desire to be part of a fabled social networking boom that’s not actually occurring. The rise of services like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter would’ve been impossible to predict, but many of the video chat services I’ve reviewed seem to be pushing (and pushing hard) to be the “next big thing.” Join our club/network/etc. Fill out a profile, give yourself a cool username, list your interests and make friends, yadda yadda yadda.
Look. I got rid of my MySpace because it was going downhill and because the world migrated to Facebook. I use Trillian because I’ve actually had editorial and personal contacts across four different instant messaging services. And the only reason I have a Digg account is to help out my editors and the sites I write for. The last thing I need is to have to sign up for something else.
Yet these services are all seemingly competing for the same slice of that coveted, insane pie. Sure, in some cases there are overtures toward integrating with existing networks to ease the transition, but I’m not even in my thirties and I’m already a little overwhelmed here. What makes me recommend Adobe ConnectNow and Tinychat over the others is that they’re not trying to introduce new vocabulary into the popular culture and they don’t require me to be a part of something new. They just do their jobs.
You want to be successful? Don’t beat us over the head with your brand. Provide a clean, simple service, and let the users take care of the rest.
The one really nice thing about all of these services (and the incumbent Google Chat) is that they’re free to at least try. Most offer some subscription-based perks, but they’re all free to use in their most basic forms, so you can at least figure out which one you like best based on the guidance I’ve tried to give you from these reviews. There’s no accounting for taste — yours or mine — and the things that bothered me about Tokbox, for example, may be things you like or will find useful.
At the end of it all, though, my recommendations are fairly firm. Adobe ConnectNow is my favorite of the services I’ve reviewed, but for more casual one-on-one chatting I’d probably go with either Tinychat or Google Talk. While the latter still requires a signup, most people have Gmail accounts, which also work for Google Talk. For anything remotely more serious, though — even as serious as having something on your desktop you want to show people — I highly recommend Adobe’s ConnectNow.