Videoconferencing for Beginners

I'm a late arrival to videoconferencing. I've been skeptical of the picture quality, for one thing. If I want to see someone moving around underwater, I'll watch an old Jacques Cousteau documentary, thank you.

But recent advances in image quality, as well as expanded offerings for individuals and small-to-midsize businesses, promise to make video chat more appealing. As broadband connectivity proliferates in hotels, professionals on the road can go online and see their loved ones back home. You might even skip the trip entirely and conduct that important client meeting via videoconferencing instead. Best of all, Webcams--which capture the video--are often under $100. At the same time, many video chat services cost nothing.

This week: a beginner's guide to videoconferencing. Next week: Hands-on with Skype 3.6's free "high-quality" video chat client, accomplished with Logitech's QuickCam Pro 9000 (about $68 online) on a desktop PC and QuickCam Pro for Notebooks on a laptop (also about $68).

What You Need

To conduct a video chat session, each participant needs a Webcam.

Some consumer laptops from Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, and others feature built-in Webcams. If your laptop doesn't have one, you can easily add it. Portable models are compact and inexpensive (usually under $100). They connect to a USB port and clip to the top of your laptop screen. Some, like Logitech's QuickCam Pro for Notebooks, include a foldable stand.

Before buying a Webcam, check its resolution. Some Webcams offer low-resolution image quality. For example, the built-in Webcam on HP's Pavilion dv6500t has 0.3 megapixel resolution.

For the best-quality video chats, look for a Webcam with a 2.0 megapixel sensor, such as the aforementioned Logitech models. And make sure the Webcam's top resolution is true and not interpolated--a method that tries to trick the eye into seeing more visual information than the image really offers. Interpolated resolution just doesn't look as good as true resolution.

Also, pay attention to the Webcam's frames per second. This is an indication of how fluidly motion will be captured. The best consumer-level Webcams today offer 30 fps.

Many Webcams have a built-in microphone, but not all. For ideal audio quality, you might want to use a separate microphone, because it can be placed closer to your mouth.

Software and Special Effects

Webcams typically come with software that lets you use the camera with instant messaging and other programs supporting video chat, such as Skype, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and AOL Instant Messenger. You will probably need to download the IM client of your choice. Check out what's available in PC World Downloads.

Your Webcam's software will most likely offer special effects, such as avatars that you can display during a video chat instead of your own mug. (I wouldn't recommend using a dachshund as your representative during a business videoconference, however.) You may be able to get creative with your backdrop, too. For example, Apple's iSight cameras and iChat software let you use a video backdrop to give the illusion you're calling from the Eiffel Tower or the moon.

Most Webcam software lets you record video and still images and send them as e-mail. Some let you record your videoconferences as video files. For example, Apple's iChat software captures video chats as MPEG-4 files, which you can play back in iTunes and transfer to your iPhone or iPod.

Sharing Your Computer Screen

Some videoconferencing tools let you also share what's on your computer screen with others. For example, during a videoconference you could deliver a PowerPoint presentation as a colleague watches thousands of miles away on a laptop screen. You could both control whatever's displayed on screen, such as a page layout document or spreadsheet.

Shared desktops and other conferencing tools are available in some free consumer IM-based services, such as Apple's iChat. Business-focused services such as WebEx's MeetMeNow ($39-$49/month per user) and SightSpeed Business ($20/month per user) provide more features, such as the ability to share a collaborative workspace while videoconferencing with multiple parties simultaneously. (Many consumer-level services, such as Skype, let you videoconference with only one person at a time.)

Call Security!

Like everything else online, Skype conversations, video chats, and IM sessions aren't without security risks.

Example: Not long ago Skype was forced to turn off video sharing in its software because the feature could be exploited to launch worm attacks. (The problem has since been fixed.)

And last year Yahoo had to update its Messenger IM software because hackers had found a way to dupe Messenger users into accepting malicious software disguised as video chat invitations.

On the flip side, you can use some Webcams for low-cost video surveillance to help protect your home or business.

For More Information

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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