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Guide to Connecting Across the Globe with Video Chat

posted by Terrence O'Brien on August 25, 2009

The advent of fast Internet connections and cheap webcams has ushered in the era of viable video chat – connecting to people across the globe, country, or even just across the street, via streaming video. Video chat lets you look at someone while you communicate with instant messages or verbally across the Internet. It's prefect for the professional parent who travels a lot and wishes they could have more face time with their kids, or for those with family who are too far away to visit frequently. And, best of all, because it uses your existing broadband connection, it’s free!

To get started with video chat you'll need a few basic things—a computer (obviously), a webcam, a broadband Internet connection, and a program that lets you connect via video with someone else. You have plenty of options when it comes to deciding on a chat program.


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Video Chat Program Choices

Skype, AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Microsoft Live Messenger, iChat, and Google Talk all offer video communication, but the person you're talking to will have to have the same program as you. Google Talk is a purely in-browser experience, with a pop-up available from within Gmail, iChat, is Mac only, and Live Messenger is Windows only, but all the rest are available on both Mac and PC.

We recommend going with Skype. It's probably the most popular video and voice chatting service, plus it offers versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Also, Skype has made video calling its specialty, so in general you'll find it a smoother experience than with AIM or other more text-centric services. With certain Skype certified webcams you can even stream high quality, 640x480 video at 30 frames a second—that's DVD quality.

The Webcam

For the webcam, you may have one already integrated into your laptop or monitor—you'll usually see a tiny pinhole lens above your screen. If you are buying a separate webcam, you'll have to decide where to place it—the best bet is above the screen; this way you'll be looking in the general direction of the camera when looking at your display. You'll also want to keep it away from your speakers if it has a built-in microphone to avoid feedback.

Finally, make sure there is plenty of light. While the quality of webcams has increased dramatically over the past few years, they still don't perform well in low light conditions.

Using Video Chat

Once you have the technical pieces in place, it’s time to start video-chatting up a storm. How to initiate a video chat varies slightly from program to program, but most (including AIM, Skype, iChat, and Live Messenger) make it pretty clear by offering a "video" button, or in the case of Skype a "video call" button, once you've selected a contact. Yahoo! Messenger has a more difficult, multi-step process to get video and voice up and running.

Whichever program you’re using, you'll also want to leave it open so that others can "call" you and initiate chats. Skype will even ring like a phone to let you know someone is trying to contact you.

Also note that both parties don't have to have webcams to use video chat, as long as you don't mind a one-sided video stream. If you're traveling and your laptop doesn't have a webcam, your kids can still turn on theirs so you can catch a glimpse of them while on the road.

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