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.