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Tutorial: Adding free videoconferencing to chats

Zack Stern | Aug. 14, 2008
The article explains how to get started, and also offers some helpful tips for getting the most out of your video chats.

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.

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.

Set it all up

Your first step into the world of videoconferencing--if your computer didn't come with a built-in camera--is to set up your Webcam. Nearly all Webcams are USB devices, so setup is generally very easy. In most cases, however, you should install the driver software before plugging in the camera, to ensure that your drivers function properly. In the case of most Logitech QuickCams, for instance, you will be prompted to plug in the camera at a specific point during the installation.

After installing the Webcam driver and plugging in the camera, you're only halfway finished. Your next step is to test the camera's microphone or install a separate mic and test it. If you're using a camera with a built-in mic, you can control the audio settings via the software that came with the Webcam. If, on the other hand, you're using a standard headset plugged into your PC's audio jacks, you should use the Sound control panel in Windows to select, configure, and test your microphone.


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