Chat is cheap. Videoconferencing, on the other hand, gives your online conversations a more personal feeling. For telecommuting, keeping in touch with clientele, calling home from a business trip, or just checking in with out-of-state relatives, you're never more than a smile away if you have a Webcam and some free software. I'll explain how to get started, and I'll also offer some helpful tips for getting the most out of your video chats.

Pick a Camera
Although you obviously can't do videoconferencing without a camera, what sort of camera you use doesn't actually matter much. Since your Internet connection will likely throttle the performance of any videoconference, a high-resolution camera can actually be a waste of money. Nevertheless, keeping in mind some important differences between camera models can help you find the best hardware for your setup.

Resolution and frame rate allow for the clearest distinctions between models. Ideally, pick a camera that captures natively at 640 by 480 resolution or better, with a speed of 30 frames per second. Some Webcams record at HD resolutions, but you'll rarely be able to transmit such dense images through a home Internet connection. Office networks are sometimes fast enough to take advantage of a bigger picture, but most IT professionals would probably frown on employees' hogging network bandwidth for high-def video chats. Most important: Be wary of any camera that advertises a resolution higher than that its sensor. Such models attempt to make an image look sharper through a software trick called interpolation, but their images often look worse than those from a noninterpolating camera--especially over a slow connection.

Many Webcams include built-in microphones that do an excellent job of picking up your voice from a few feet away. Built-in mics aren't always the best choice for all situations, though. In a busy office, for instance, ambient noise can be so loud that even a high-quality noise-canceling microphone can't cut through the chatter. Built-in microphones also tend to produce echo effects as they pick up the voices coming out of your nearby speakers. So if you want to ensure that your voice gets through clearly, consider investing in a good headset microphone that will isolate your voice and deliver incoming audio directly to your ears.

Although it may seem like a petty consideration, you should pick a Webcam that looks appealing to you. It will probably be sitting directly in front of you whenever you're at your desk, so choose one you won't mind looking at all the time. Also, consider how the device will mount on your setup. Most attach to the top of your monitor, and some even come with versatile mounts that can hang over the top of a laptop display without falling off. In most cases, you'll want to mount it just above the screen, as close to the center as possible. That way you'll be more likely to make eye contact (or at least appear to be making eye contact) with the people you talk to.

Naturally, if your computer came with a Webcam built in, you don't need to bother with an external camera.

Choose an Application
Your choice in videoconferencing software is a far more important consideration than the type of camera or microphone you use. As of this writing, only a few good video-chat applications are available, and they tend not to communicate with one another. Fortunately, these apps are free, and nothing will prevent you from installing more than one on your PC.

AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) is the most popular IM program around, and it supports video, too. The best part: In North America, at least, it's nearly ubiquitous, so everyone you know probably already has an AIM user name. If they happen to have a Webcam, you can hold video chats with them.

iChat, Apple's take on AIM, now does videoconferencing using the built-in Webcam that comes with every new Mac. If you have Mac users in your AIM buddy list, this is what they'll be using. It even allows Mac users and PC users to chat together (see the next page).

Microsoft Windows Live Messenger is a free download for Windows users, and it supports videoconferences. It's more popular in Europe than in North America, so it can be a good choice for transcontinental face time.

Skype , which has won international acclaim for its free voice-calling service, now offers one of the best video-chat interfaces around. And because it works on Mac OS and Linux, too, it's a great choice for cross-platform conversations.

Yahoo Instant Messenger handles videoconferencing, too, but at this writing the feature was not supported in the Vista version of the software.

In addition to the free consumer-targeted offerings, several business conferencing services support video as well. The popular Cisco WebEx service provides videoconferencing features to small-business customers, while the more specialized SightSpeed has a more specifically video-oriented conferencing service that includes a host of other file-sharing and collaboration features.

Set It All Up

Set It All Up

Your first step into the world of videoconferencing--if your computer didn't come with a built-in camera--is to set up your Webcam. Nearly all Webcams are USB devices, so setup is generally very easy. In most cases, however, you should install the driver software before plugging in the camera, to ensure that your drivers function properly. In the case of most Logitech QuickCams, for instance, you will be prompted to plug in the camera at a specific point during the installation.

After installing the Webcam driver and plugging in the camera, you're only halfway finished. Your next step is to test the camera's microphone or install a separate mic and test it. If you're using a camera with a built-in mic, you can control the audio settings via the software that came with the Webcam. If, on the other hand, you're using a standard headset plugged into your PC's audio jacks, you should use the Sound control panel in Windows to select, configure, and test your microphone.

A few more points to consider before you get started: If you're telecommuting from home, pants may be optional, but a shirt isn't. Wear a solid color if possible, but especially avoid thin lines and patterns that can look jumbled on screen. Slow Internet connections will only worsen the appearance of an already complicated shirt pattern. And you'll look your best under lots of natural light. Ideally, position yourself near a bright window or other warmly lit source. Avoid having bright lights directly behind you, because they might confuse the camera's exposure.

Cross-Platform Video Chat With AIM

Unlike e-mail, videoconferencing lacks a single standard that lets all clients talk to one another. And because of complexities in video-chat protocols and video-codec licensing issues, third-party open-source IM apps such as Pidgin still don't support video chat at all. So for the most part, you can forget about chatting face-to-face with friends who use a different chat program than you do, with one notable exception: AIM can connect you to Mac users for whom Apple's iChat is the default video app.

To initiate an AIM videoconference from a PC, launch AIM and right-click the name of an online buddy. Choose Video... and then click Send to invite that buddy to a video chat. If your buddy is using iChat on a Mac, he or she will be prompted to click Accept to begin the conversation. To initiate a videoconference from a Mac, click the movie-camera icon next to a buddy's name. When prompted on their PC, that person should click Accept. If you don't see a movie-camera icon beside a person's name, that buddy doesn't have a camera activated on their computer.

Create Browser-Based Videoconferences and Video Mail With TokBox
I like the reliability of running a chat-and-video program on a computer, but browser-based tools can be ideal on a borrowed PC. TokBox creates videoconferences through Firefox or Internet Explorer, and it can even invite people who haven't signed up with any service to participate. AIM and Windows Live Messenger fans can sign in with those accounts, too, for regular chatting and for video calls to their contacts.

To start a videoconference, sign in to TokBox and click Conference on the left side of the page. When a small Adobe Flash box prompts you for permission to use your Webcam, click Allow. (Since Flash is doing the heavy lifting, you should make sure that your version is current to avoid compatibility problems.) Then just send the conference link to your contacts. The link recipients don't even have to log in; they can just load up the browser page and click Allow to join the conference.

TokBox also lets you create recorded video messages that you can send to family members, colleagues, and friends. In the main TokBox page after logging in, just click Video Mail. Click Record Message, enter an e-mail address, add a text message below if you want to, and click Send. The recipient will get an e-mail with a private link back to your video file, which is hosted on TokBox's Web site.

Share Documents and Desktops
In a videoconference, you could aim a camera at a whiteboard to show off written meeting notes, but you can just as easily pass around digital files instead. In most chat clients, you can drag a file to the chat window to send it, or right-click a contact's name and choose the option to send a file.

Desktop sharing takes collaboration further, permitting a remote person to view or control a computer. Essentially, you set up a virtual network computing (VNC) connection. Such an arrangement works well for troubleshooting a parent's distant laptop, but it's also appropriate for showing a PowerPoint or Excel presentation to a group.

Desktop-sharing support varies greatly on different video and chat clients. For instance, it isn't available on the standard AIM client for PCs, but it is included in the more business-oriented AIM Pro. I like the pro version better than the consumer AIM anyway, because it's almost ad-free. Just right-click an AIM Pro buddy, and choose New Desktop Share. Click Continue, and the remote computer can see your desktop. (Bear in mind that your buddy will also need to be running AIM Pro to receive your file.)

On a Mac with OS X 10.5 and iChat, click a buddy, and then click the icon in the bottom right to offer your screen to the remote contact or to ask to control their computer. When you're in control, the remote computer replaces your main screen, but a small representation of your own system lets you toggle between the views. Click the X button to end the remote-control session.

Google Docs is another collaboration favorite that works independently of your videoconferencing software. You run your chat software as you normally would, and log in to this service at the same time. Open one of your documents, and click the Share tab on the right. You can then invite others to collaborate or to view the document, and they can alter it or look at it at the same time.

Use a Videophone, Skip the PC
For permanent videoconference setups, consider avoiding the PC altogether. Dedicated videophone devices can be great for always-ready office installations. Unfortunately, such stand-alone devices tend to work only with their own kind, so usually you'll need to buy at least two of the same device if you want to talk to anyone. As fate would have it, though, some manufacturers now offer PC-based software that can connect Webcam users to dedicated videophones.

D-Link offers a couple of business-oriented hardware products, the i2eye Broadband Videophone DVC-1000 and the i2eye Broadband Desktop Videophone DVC-2000. While the DVC-1000 is designed to sit atop a television set in a conference room, the DVC-2000 consists of a camera and a screen built into a desktop telephone.

The Packet8 Tango, on the other hand, is a device that connects to your PC, phone, and Internet source. It has a built-in wireless router, which helps free up some space in a home office. Regrettably, it can talk only to other Packet8 videophones.

Game consoles also make a great video-chatting platform, especially if you already have the game hardware. You'll just need to add a camera from Microsoft or Sony. The former offers the Xbox 360 Live Vision Camera, and the latter sells the PlayStation Eye for the PlayStation 3. As with most other non-PC video-chat products, these allow you to converse only with people who are using the same system.

Improve Network Performance for Videoconferencing
Videoconferencing requires a steady stream of data to maintain presentable video frame rates. A higher-speed connection can produce smoother frame rates and sharper details, but your network and firewalls might slow the process down. If you're apprehensive about adjusting security settings, skip these tips unless you're having connection problems.

If you're running a software firewall on your PC, it could be the cause of any video-chat connection problems you may experience. Here's how to allow your conferencing software to get onto the Internet in Windows Vista's built-in Firewall. (This process varies slightly with different security software.)

In the Security control panel, open Windows Firewall. Click Allow a program through Windows Firewall. Click Continue and then select Add program. Choose the videoconferencing software, and click OK.

Your hardware router may also slow down or block traffic. In that situation, to improve access you'll want to identify which computer is using which protocol. Once you do, the router will know where to send video packets, which will prevent it from blocking your chat connections.

To do so, access your router's settings, likely through an administration Web page at its internal IP address, such as 192.168.1.1. Look for port-forwarding options, likely under an advanced-settings tab. If it's available, choose the name of your chat or videoconference software, and enter the local IP address of that computer into the appropriate field in your router's interface.

If you don't see a preset option for your chat software, manually enter, alongside that IP address, the port numbers that the software uses. Those numbers are frequently available in the software documentation. (This table offers lots of helpful details.)

Other networks on the same channel can also interfere with your wireless router. Use a program such as NetStumbler to see which channels are in use nearby, and pick a different option in your router's setup interface.

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