Easy Video Phone Calling

women-looking-at-smartphone-image-from-shutterstockOver the last few years there’s been an explosion by consumers video chatting with each other. The difference between a regular audio-only phone call and a video chat is enormous – once you’ve tried making a video phone call, it’s really hard to go back to just using the plain old telephone. After all, a lot (some say most) communication between people is non-verbal! Businesses have used video conferencing services for a long time, but now with the ubiquitous webcam embedded in our smartphones, tablets and laptops it has become easy for consumers to make a video phone call. Rather than attempt to cover the entire playing field of video chatting options, I’m only going to focus on the four options you are most likely use (one or more) in your daily life:

iosdevicesThe first service is only for iPhone, iPad and Mac users – Facetime. Facetime’s advantage is having pretty much the best video and audio quality. With most internet connections, you get smooth delivery with only a few moments of freezing – much less than most other services. It’s really easy to use as well, just tap the Facetime icon to bring up the app, and choose someone from your contacts list (someone who also has an Apple device). The only prerequisite is that both parties on the video call need to have Facetime enabled in their iOS device or Mac. For iPhones & iPads, just tap Settings > Facetime, and make sure the first slider is showing green. You can do Facetime video calls on your 4g/LTE phone connection, but you really want to be on a Wi-fi network for the best experience. Facetime is a 1-to-1 service, so if you want to have more people at more locations, choose another video calling option.

I know one family who sent their kid off to college and have dinner with her every Sunday night – virtually. The parents set their Macbook Air on the dinner table, and she sets hers in front of her plate at the dining hall – they have a great time catching up and keeping connected even though she’s far away. Hint: noisy dining halls make using a headset pretty much mandatory!

Hangouts-LogoFor anyone with a Gmail address/Google account, Hangouts are a great way to do video calls. Again, this works only if all the parties on the call have Google accounts. One advantage is that it works on just about any type of computer, smartphone or tablet. And the other big advantage is that you can easily have multiple people on the same call – this is great for virtual family reunions or for a bunch of friends wanting to get together. The video and audio quality is highly variable though, and it’s common for every call to be interrupted with lots of freezing (both audio and video or just one or the other). And sometimes really bad video quality. But it works just about anywhere regardless of whether you’re on a Wi-fi network or just in cellphone range. Google has a Hangouts app for smartphones and tablets which makes it easy to use, but it runs on your web browser on a computer (go to https://hangouts.google.com). One other thing Hangouts has (on computer, not smartphone) is a chatboard/whiteboard where you can post web addresses, documents, drawings etc.

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skypelogoA long-time player in the video calling arena is Skype, which has the added benefit of allowing you to connect with regular telephones and cellphones (at a cost). Since they’ve been around so long, they have a huge established base of users, and you can use Skype from a smartphone, tablet or computer easily. Skype includes text messaging, audio-only, and video calling (both 1-to-1 and group calling). Call quality varies greatly, and both parties must have a Skype account (now Microsoft) and the app installed in order to use it. Skype is now owned by Microsoft, who is working very hard to update the service to be more competitive with newer players in this arena, but without alienating their long-time users. Downsides are that it requires Skype software on your computer, and Microsoft forces you to have a Microsoft account in order to use Skype.

facebookvidchat image from http://tricks-collections.com/Facebook also has video chatting, which requires a one-time setup on your computer (installing a Java app), which you do the first time you start a video chat. Just start a regular text chat and then click the video icon at the top of the chat window, follow on-screen prompts and you’re ready to go. The call quality is ok, and really doesn’t work well unless you have a decent Wi-fi connection (Facebook’s video chat is handled through Microsoft’s Skype service). The biggest advantage to using Facebook for video chatting is that you’re likely to have family and friends who already have Facebook accounts. On smartphones, you need the Facebook Messenger app since the folks at Facebook decided to separate messaging from the regular Facebook app.

So which one should you choose? Unfortunately, there is no universal video chat service like our regular phone service where you can pick up any phone and call any other phone. Competition is good, but brings fragmentation to the video chatting party. Most people find that they use more than one video chatting service. My suggestion is that you find out what your family and friends have and use (likely from the above four services), and setup your own accounts with the services that they use. Then use the best service depending on what you’re doing. For Apple users, Facetime is probably the best for 1-to-1 video calls, otherwise Google or Facetime are probably going to be your best bet. Currently, I think of Skype only to talk to folks overseas, which can be much cheaper than using the regular telephone system. But I expect Microsoft to continue to revamp the Skype service and make it more of a contender for casual video chatting. And Google’s Hangouts are great for getting multiple people together, you can have up to 10 separate people on one hangout.

Here’s a short list of cases where you might want to use video calling:

  1. virtually attending a wedding, funeral or other event
  2. family reunions where not everybody can get to the same location
  3. getting together with college friends years later no matter where they’ve ended up
  4. impromptu webinars or learning sessions with students
  5. seeing a new baby or seeing your grandmother (and letting her see you!)
  6. Pretty much anytime you’d use a telephone to talk to someone

One last note, I’ve probably missed your favorite video chat service or app, there are a ton of people out there who like alternatives like tinychat and meeting organizers like Meetings.io. I’m not knocking them here by leaving them out, I’m only focusing on the video chat services and apps that your family and friends are most likely to already have or use. Feel free to leave a comment about your favorite video chatting service!

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