Date:1 December 2012
Seeing eye to eye, digitally: here’s how to navigate the world of video-chat software and devices to connect with far-off friends and family. By Lauren Biron
Nothing can take the place of face-to-face conversation, but the combination of high-speed Internet, webcams and smartphones makes modern video chatting a close substitute. The technology has come a long way since it popped up as a business tool in the 1990s and evolved into consumer software in the past decade.
Nearly every modern smartphone and laptop comes ready for video chatting, but that ubiquity can be tricky to navigate because features differ across software, and applications aren’t necessarily compatible with each other and with all hardware. When used to its full potential, though, videoconferencing is a cheap and effective way to see and hear friends who live far away, join in with the family if you can’t make it home for the holidays, or virtually kiss your kids goodnight when you’re away on a business trip.
Net full of options
Given the amount of money Telkom made for so long on long-distance calling, it’s surprising how many modern companies are lining up to offer video calls to anywhere in the world for free; by sending calls over the Internet, these services circumvent the phone company altogether. Yet here we are, with dozens of ways to send our voices and faces over the Web.
In fact, it’s the very volume of incompatible options that makes the process far more confusing than it needs to be. The videoconferencing service you end up using will depend on the device you connect with and the devices owned by those whom you wish to contact. If you both have the same kind of smartphone, a built-in app might be all you need. But if one of you is on a computer and the other is on a video-game console, you’ll probably need to fi nd something a bit more robust.
You know a technology has caught on when it becomes a verb. Skype is the de facto way to connect when you’re unsure of the equipment of the people to whom you’re connecting. The powerful videoconferencing application runs on just about anything with an Internet connection, including iOS and Android devices, Macs and PCs, and even some televisions. That versatility, plus integration with Facebook and Outlook (Microsoft acquired Skype in 2011) means a growing base of users and ways to access the service.
To prevent platforms from coming between friends and family, Skype allows calls between various kinds of devices. A computer can connect to a smartphone, another computer or a landline – although only calls made entirely over the Internet are free, and for more than two people to video-chat, at least one person needs a R40-a-month Skype Premium subscription, which allows up to 25 participants at once.
Skype’s multi-platform compatibility certainly lowers the barrier to participation, but the service sometimes suffers from shoddy video quality, especially when relying on cellular connections rather than more stable broadband ones.
Smartphone-to-smartphone Skype calls are passable, but the images often turn pixellated and blurry, and calls that link Skype accounts to Facebook chat users frequently lag. According to Jim Forbes, a management consultant for the technology consulting firm Ibex Group, poor video quality on Facebook probably comes from the company’s rush to try to keep up with Google. So to get the most from the service, stick to computer-to-computer calls using Skype’s desktop software, and make sure you have a reliable, high-bandwidth Internet connection.
Google offers video chatting on computers and mobile devices with front-facing cameras via Google+ Hangouts, a feature that, like Skype on Facebook, is videoconferencing via social network. Hangouts requires a Google+ account and, to work directly in a computer browser, a video plug-in. The Google+ mobile app can also bridge the technological divide by letting Android and iPhone users digitally hang out. The video quality is what you would expect from Google: solid and clean, with potential for goofy fun, such as wearing virtual pirate hats. And unlike Skype, Google+ Hangouts is completely free and allows up to 10 participants in a call.
Apple restricts its two video-chat services to Apple devices only. The company’s computers come with Messages, built for connecting to as many as three other computers, and FaceTime, which can connect to one other Mac or iOS device. Apple designed FaceTime for the iPhone, and that’s where it works best (it’s pre-installed on any iDevice with a front-facing camera). To make a call, just open the desired contact and tap the FaceTime button.
While early versions of FaceTime required a Wi-Fi connection, iOS recently caught up with Android and now allows FaceTime over 3G, too (though sound and video quality, which are strong over Wi-Fi, may suffer because of already overburdened networks). The convenience of the service makes it a good choice for an Apple-friendly family, but if there’s already a PC–Mac rift in your clan, FaceTime won’t help.
For video chatting without a big-company name, other options abound. Netconference provides video chatting and cloud-based storage for easy document sharing, and ooVoo and Tango are free services that can work over 3G on both Android and iOS devices. But as with all 3G services, they can quickly eat into cellular data plans; a 20-minute phone call uses more than 60 MB.
Big-screen video chat
You don’t have to squint at a smartphone or squeeze the whole family around a laptop to video-chat. New Skype-ready HDTVs from Panasonic, LG, Samsung and other companies connect via USB to external video cameras such as the FreeTalk Conference HD (available in the US for about R1 000), which comes in models made for Sharp, Toshiba and Panasonic TVs.
You can also use the TV you already have by connecting it to your computer with an S-video, a VGA or an HDMI cable (you’ll still need to look at your computer’s camera, though). If you have a cumbersome desktop computer, you may be better off connecting a Skype-friendly Blu-ray player, such as the Sony 3D Blu-ray Disc Player, to a TV and a USB webcam. Or you can opt for an all-in-one device, such as Logitech TV Cam HD, a R1 600 set-top device that runs Skype software and works on nearly any HDMI-equipped TV.
Video-game systems are another option. When connected to Microsoft’s Kinect camera or Xbox Live Vision camera (and with a R500-a-year Xbox Live Gold membership), the Xbox allows chat between two consoles or between a console and a computer via Windows Live Messenger. Nintendo’s recently released Wii U GamePad also offers video chatting.
Although there are lots of ways to connect digitally, computer-to-computer connections remain the dominant method for two reasons: simplicity and compatibility. The move towards smarter TVs may change that, but it hasn’t yet. So for a successful digital family gathering over the holidays, stick with the well-established tech and pull a laptop up to the table.
In 1 Hour . . .
Video-chat apps use up far more data than other internet-intensive tasks, such as streaming music.
Streaming music – 60 MB
Skype video call from one cellphone to another – 200 MB
Skype voice call from a cellphone to a landline – 60 MB