Communication opportunities have gone from landline corded phones and snail mail to cell phones and e-mail, but today’s technology offers much more beyond that. With an inexpensive Webcam and microphone, you can be virtually present to any other Internet-using person. And once you have the microphone, camera and Internet connection, it’s absolutely free.
So, you can still keep in close contact with those family members and high school and college friends who have made their way to various parts of the country and world. Heck, you can even use the Internet to keep in close contact with the friend who lives across town. But when it comes to which service to use for this communication, you’ll want to find the service that suits you best. To help in your investigation, Cincy Chic has reviewed the most popular video chat providers: Skype, Windows Live Messenger, AIM, Google Chat and Ustream.tv.
- Best overall package: Windows Live Messenger
- Worst overall service: AIM
- Overview: Skype is a free downloadable service that offers voice calling with an option to video chat.
- Video Size: Small to full screen. The video can be popped out to an outside window and expanded to a customized size by resizing the window. The box showing yourself, however, is fairly small (about one-fifth of your contact’s video) and covers part of your contact’s video.
- Video Quality: Excellent. As the size of the video increases, the video quality decreases, but overall the quality is excellent. When there is rapid movement, the video blurs, but is not pixilated.
- Sound Quality: Excellent. Speech is clear and concise, and Skype offers sound tests to prevent feedback, including being able to hear your voice through your contact’s computer.
- Accessibility: Excellent. Skype is available as a free download, and you can set it to start with your computer.
- Reliability: Fair. While Skype is excellent when it works, Skype often causes dropped calls, dropped video and, when the Internet connection is slow, delays in conversation.
- System Requirements: Microsoft Windows, MAC, Linux, or Skype built-in phones
- Added Features: Computer-to-phone calls, feedback opportunities
- Skype offers low international calling rates. After each call, Skype offers you a quick survey to provide feedback regarding the quality of your call.
- Overview: Windows Live Messenger is a free downloadable service that works with MSN and Yahoo! contacts. Users can send voice clips and make voice calls or video chats.
- Video Size: Small, medium, large or full screen. Windows Live Messenger does not have customizable sizes for the video. The video cannot pop out of the chat window. The box showing yourself, however, can be small, medium or large as well so that you can see yourself in a bigger frame and it does not cover your contact’s video in the small, medium or large sizes.
- Video Quality: Excellent. As the size of the video increases, the video quality decreases, but overall the quality is excellent. When there is rapid movement, the video blurs but is not pixilated.
- Sound Quality: Good. While the speech usually is clear, Windows Live Messenger can experience feedback and you can hear your voice from your contact’s computer. When the Internet connection is slow, the speech is choppy and unclear.
- Accessibility: Good. Windows Live Messenger is available as a free download but is limited to Windows users. You can set your Messenger to start up with your computer.
- Reliability: Good. More often than not, Windows Live Messenger is dependable, but like any other service, it has its down times when it is unavailable.
- System Requirements: Microsoft Windows (not MAC or Linux compatible)
- Added Features: games, sharing folders, personalized backgrounds, donating opportunities.
- While you are chatting away, you can also take part in some friendly competition with your contact with a variety of games, including checkers, Uno and poker. If you’d rather share documents or photos than a competition, Windows Live Messenger allows you to maintain a sharing folder with each contact. Each of you can access this sharing folder when you are online. You can personalize your chat experience beyond your Windows Live Messenger icon by customizing your background with a variety of background themes or drag a picture from a file and drop it on the chat window. You can also personalize your chat with a charity with the i’m Initiative. With this initiative, users can sign up for a charity, and each time they start a conversation on Windows Live Messenger the service will donate a portion of its revenue to that organization.
- Overview: AIM is a free downloadable service that began as just an instant messaging service. Now AIM offers voice calls and video chat options.
- Video Size: Small to full screen. AIM automatically puts your video in a resizable window. The box showing yourself, however, is much smaller (about one-third of your contact’s video) and covers part of your contact’s video.
- Video Quality: Poor. In general, AIM’s video quality is not very clear. Even small movements can cause pixilation, and with much movement, the entire video becomes pixilated.
- Sound Quality: Fair. Although the speech is understandable, it is not very clear and can often be choppy. AIM also causes problems with feedback and echoing.
- Accessibility: Excellent. AIM is available as a free download, and you can set it up to start with your computer. Because AIM started as an instant messaging service, many people are familiar with the basic idea of AIM, which allows you to contact a wide range of people.
- Reliability: Fair. While AIM in itself is a reliable service, the video part of the service is not very reliable. Calls are often dropped or AIM cannot complete a connection.
- System Requirements: Microsoft Windows, MAC or Linux
- Added Features: Plug-in options. AIM users can download plug-ins to use on their AIM for added features, including games, news updates and music.
- Overview: Google Chat is available for Gmail account holders to talk with other Gmail account holders. It is available as a free downloadable gadget in Gmail. Note: This service is fairly new and is just a beta version, which means that it is a test version. Gmail will probably improve upon their Google Chat as time progresses.
- Video Size: Small to full screen. The video can pop out in its own window, but it will still have the chat attached to it unless it is full screen. The box showing yourself is about one-third the size of your contact’s video. Although your video covers part of your contact’s video, you can minimize your video so that you cannot see yourself or you can move your video box to a different area of your contact’s video.
- Video Quality: Excellent. Overall the video quality is excellent. When there is fast movement, the image will blur, but it will be clearer than the image under the same conditions in other services.
- Sound Quality: Excellent. Google Chat offers clear, crisp speech. There are few delays or choppy parts in the speech.
- Accessibility: Poor. In order to use Google Chat both you and your contact must keep Gmail open in your web browser. This restriction limits accessibility. Also, the accessibility is limited to Gmail account holders. While other services are limited to their own users, most provide a downloadable program that run on their own so that they are independent of Web browsers.
- Reliability: Excellent. There are few if any dropped calls, and the connection time is quick and reliable.
- System Requirements: Gmail and Windows (not MAC or Linux compatible.)
- Added Features: ability to “go off the record.” This feature allows you to set whether your contacts are able to save conversations that you have with that person. If you go off the record, none of your contacts or you will be able to save the conversations that you have.
- Overview: Ustream.tv provides a one-way communication rather than a conversation. Like TV, you can host your own show and broadcast it to the online community, including family and friends.
- Video Size: Small to full screen. Your viewers can watch your Ustream.tv shows in a resizable pop-out window and view up to full screen.
- Video Quality: Excellent. The video image is clear and smooth. Movement causes the image to blur slightly, but overall it is excellent
- Sound Quality: Very Good. As long as there are good acoustics in the room where you are recording, you should be OK for the most part. There is no problem with feedback or echoing, but there are some issues with skipping and choppy speech.
- Accessibility: Excellent. While your broadcasts can be seen on Ustream.tv, you can also embed the video in your blog or Facebook profile or provide links to see it. Because the broadcast is recorded, your viewers can watch your broadcasts live or on their own time.
- Reliability: Very Good. Like any other site, Ustream.tv suffers an occasional down time, but overall, the site is reliable.
- Added Features: Cincy Chic access. Cincy Chic uses Ustream.tv to stream live interviews and events. All of the Lunch n’ Learns will also be available to watch on Ustream.tv.
Models (left to right): Tamara Walker and Amanda Turner of New View Management Group, Inc.
Makeup Artistry: Trina Paul
Hair Styling: Liz Carter of Rustic Pear Hair Designs