Video chatting for newbies

Here's our foolproof guide to getting even the most technophobic relatives and friends online for some face-to-face time.

Select a Service

You can find tons of video-chat services out there. Which one you decide to use depends on a number of factors, including what you want to do with it and what services you're comfortable using. Most major instant messenger services--including AOL Instant Messenger, Facebook, Google Talk, and Skype--have video-chat support. If you already use one of these services regularly, you should probably just stick with it. Otherwise, read on.

Google Talk

Google Talk, the chat service located inside Google's Web programs (such as Gmail and Google+), has had video-chat support since late 2008. To use Google Talk's video service, you must first install the voice-and-video chat software. Once the software is installed, video chatting with your Gmail contacts is simple.

Get started: To begin a video-chat session, open a chat window as you normally would, by double-clicking on your friend's name in the chat list, or by hovering over your friend's name and selecting Chat. Once the chat window is open, a little video icon will appear in the top-left corner of the window. Click that icon to start a video call.

Either you or your friend (or both) must have a webcam in order to video chat (this should be obvious). If your friend has a webcam plugged in, a small camera icon will appear next to their name in your chat list. Also, both of you must be online -- if one of you is "invisible," you won't be able to video chat.

Add a contact: If you want to video chat with someone who isn't on your contact list, simply add that person as a contact for Gmail chat. At the top of the chat window is a box where you can 'Search, add, or invite' a friend. Type in your pal's email address, and then click Invite to chat.

Adjust the video: Google uses Flash video, which means you can do little in the way of adjusting your webcam directly from your chat window. If for some reason you can't see video, right-click the video window and choose Settings. Confirm that you've allowed Google to access your camera and microphone (the icon looks like a computer with an eye inside it). Next, verify that you've chosen the correct webcam -- go to the icon with the webcam on it, and find your camera in the drop-down menu.

If you're a member of Google+, you can use Google's messenger service to broadcast your webcam in a Google+ Hangout. To start a Google+ Hangout, go to your Google+ homepage and click Start a Hangout on the right side. Hangouts can hold up to ten people video chatting simultaneously in the same room.

You should use Google Talk if you have a lot of Gmail contacts, you want to talk to multiple friends at once (using Google+), or you don't want to download and open a separate program.

Skype

Skype is practically synonymous with "video chat." This instant messenger program lets users make both video calls and regular calls straight from their desktop.

Get started: Since Skype isn't browser-based, you have to download and install the Skype desktop client. Then you need to obtain a username, if you don't already have one. Creating an account is pretty simple: Just click Don't have a Skype Name? and go through the steps.

Once you have a Skype name, you can log in and start chatting right away. To start a video chat, click on the friend you want to chat with, and then click the Video Call button.

Add a contact: You can easily add a contact in Skype. Go to Contacts, New Contact and search for your friend by their email address, Skype username, or full name. You can also search your Microsoft Outlook and Yahoo email address books by going to Contacts, Import Contacts.

Adjust the video: One nice thing about Skype's desktop client is that it allows you to adjust your webcam's settings for a better picture. Go to Tools, Options, Video settings, and you'll see some basic options, including a feature for taking a snapshot with your webcam. To make further tweaks, go to Webcam settings. In that window, you can adjust brightness, contrast, gamma, hue, saturation, sharpness, image quality, white balance, and flicker. You can also choose whether to mirror or flip the image, or to go black and white. These settings will carry over to the next time you use your webcam, too, so if you want to change your webcam settings for Google chat, here's where to do it.

You should use Skype if you like tweaking your webcam settings, you want only a video-chatting service, and you plan to call landlines or cell phones on occasion.

Facebook

Recently Facebook introduced its very own in-browser video-calling service in conjunction with Skype. The service hasn't rolled out to all users yet, however; the current status of the rollout on Facebook's video-calling page states: "Video calling will be available soon. Please check back later."

Get started: Facebook video calling is a lot like Google video chat. Before your first video chat, you'll need to download and install some software, but all of your chatting will be in-browser.

To video call one of your friends, choose the person from your Facebook chat list on the right side of the browser, and open a chat window by clicking on the person's name. In the upper-right corner of the chat window, a small video camera icon will appear; click this icon to initiate a video call.

You can also start video calls by visiting your friend's Facebook page and clicking the Call icon that appears in the top right. Only one person needs to have a webcam for friends to use Facebook video chat.

If your friend doesn't pick up when you call, Facebook lets you leave a "video voicemail" message: You can record a quick video that they'll receive in their inbox the next time they log in.

Facebook video calling is supported in Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, but not in Opera. It does not work on Linux.

Add a contact: Adding a Facebook video-chat contact is the same as adding a regular Facebook contact -- you have to "friend" the person (and they have to accept) before you can start chatting or video chatting with them.

You should use Facebook video chat if you have the option (it hasn't arrived for all users yet) and if the people you want to talk to are on Facebook.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal

PC World (US online)
Topics: Google, Digital camcorders, consumer electronics, video chat, camcorders, Facebook
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