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.

Video chat is all the rage these days, thanks to new services such as Google+ Hangouts and Skype/Facebook integrated video chat. Video chatting is a great way to stay in touch with family and friends -- seeing loved ones' faces on a computer screen is almost like actually being there.

If you're a video-chat newbie, shopping for webcams and setting up video calls can be a daunting process. Luckily, it isn't as hard as you think it is. Here's how to get started with video chat. You'll be reconnecting with relatives and pals in no time.

Choose a Webcam

These days most laptops -- and some desktop monitors -- come with built-in webcams. Before you rush out and buy a webcam, confirm whether your laptop or desktop monitor already has one.

When you're out webcam shopping, consider the following specs.

1. Resolution: Picture resolution is measured in megapixels -- more megapixels is typically better. Built-in webcams are usually 1.3 megapixels, which is okay but not great. Look for a webcam that has 2 or 3 megapixels; having anything more than 3 megapixels probably won't make much of a difference when it comes to video chat.

2. Speed: Video is measured in frames per second, a figure also known as the frame rate. You'll want a webcam that captures 30-plus frames per second for smooth video -- though the actual smoothness of the video will depend on a number of factors, including the speed of your Internet connection.

3. Lens: Entry-level webcams typically have plastic lenses, but a webcam with a glass lens is a better choice. It's also nice to have a webcam with a manual focus ring, so you can adjust the webcam yourself.

4. Connection point: You'll come across both USB-wired webcams and wireless (Bluetooth or Wi-Fi) webcams. Of the two types, USB 2.0 is the more reliable choice, in my opinion, because you'll get a steady connection and you won't have to worry about your Wi-Fi cutting out (this is good if you're, say, recording video). You should also consider the type of stand a webcam has. If you plan to use the webcam on a thin monitor or a laptop screen, you'll want a clip-style stand. If you have a larger monitor, or if you want to put the webcam on a shelf or desk, you'll need a flat stand.

5. HD: If you wish to use your webcam just for video chatting and socializing, you don't really need an HD webcam. But if you intend to do a lot of streaming or recording -- you have a Stickam show, for instance, or you want to make YouTube video logs -- you might consider an HD model. The "HD" label refers to webcams that capture images of 720p or better.

Webcams can cost anywhere from $10 to $300 -- but if you're paying more than $30, you'd better know what you're getting.

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