Video Chatting for Newbies

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

Video Chatting for Newbies: HD webcam
These days most laptops--and a lot of 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.

Video Chatting for Newbies: HD webcam
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.

Set Up Your Webcam

Setting up a webcam should be pretty straightforward, but here are a few tips to ensure a trouble-free setup.

Video Chatting for Newbies
1. Plug the webcam in: If your webcam doesn't plug in (it's a wireless- or Bluetooth-enabled model), turn it on and make sure your computer recognizes it as a webcam. If you can't tell whether your computer is recognizing the webcam, go to Cameroid and click Snap; if your computer recognizes your webcam, you'll get an Adobe Flash window that requests camera and microphone access. Click Allow, and check for a picture.

2. Download and install the latest drivers: Verify that you have the latest drivers for your webcam by going to the webcam's manufacturer's website. You may not need to do this if your webcam is a plug-and-play USB device. Also be sure to download and install the latest version of Adobe Flash, if you plan on using a Flash-based video-chat service (such as Google Talk).

3. Lighting, lighting, lighting: Webcam image quality isn't great, but that doesn't mean it has to be terrible. To get some decent lighting, follow a few rules. Don't use your computer monitor as a source of light, and don't put a light behind you (your face will just look dark). Instead, position a source of light (such as a desk lamp) in front of you or beside you. Soften the light by taping a piece of white paper over the bulb--this will make you look less orange and oversaturated.

4. Wear white: Many webcams have automatic exposure and white balance. Basically, that means the webcam will focus on the brightest thing in the picture and assume that it is white, adjusting its picture accordingly. You need to put something that's actually white in the picture, or your webcam will focus on something that isn't white--and your picture will end up looking all weird. You can either wear a white shirt or constantly hold up a piece of white paper (your choice).

For more tips on how to perfect your webcam video, check out photography blogger Strobist's post on getting a good picture.

Next page: Selecting a service, and video chatting by phone

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