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Now you see me: Video chats and calls

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November 8th, 2016
These days video chats or video calls are pretty much as simple as tapping a button.

These days video chats or video calls are pretty much as simple as tapping a button.

The holidays are almost here and, in the age of the Internet, seeing family and friends face-to-face no longer requires expensive plane tickets or a hefty long-distance bill. Now, you can watch your grandkids open their presents on Christmas morning, even if they’re spread out in different places.

Thanks to smartphones and computers and their built-in cameras, video chats or video calls are pretty much as simple as tapping a button these days. And the quality of the audio and video can be quite high, with a good Internet connection.

But as with many other things in the Internet age, there are quite a few options and some potentially confusing differences between mobile devices and computers and apps and browsers.

Let’s clear things up.

To begin with, the vast majority of modern smartphones have perfectly good cameras built into them, often with both front- and rear-facing cameras. And those front-facing cameras are not just for teens taking selfies—they’re for convenient video calls, too. On laptops and computers, you’ll need a webcam, which is just a small camera that sits on top of your monitor and plugs into a USB port. Many modern laptops already have built-in webcams. The same goes for the microphone needed for the audio, since almost any device with a built-in camera also has a built-in microphone and external webcams usually have microphones in them.

Once you’re all set with the hardware (and once the person on the other end of your video call is all set, too!), you’ll need to choose the app or software to use to facilitate the chat. Some video calls work through specific software or smartphone apps, while others work directly in a web browser. In any case, you will almost certainly need to create an account and install the app or software.

To wit, here’s a list of some of the most popular options.

Facetime

Built into (and only available on) Apple devices, like iPhones, iPads, and Mac computers, FaceTime is a popular, easy-to-use app for simple video chats. And thanks to the popularity of aforementioned iPhones, you’re likely to find that the people you want to call use it, too. Which is important, because while FaceTime and most other apps work seamlessly across various hardware setups (i.e., one person on a computer and the other on a smartphone or tablet), everyone on a video chat needs to be using the same app or software. That means that if your brother doesn’t have an iPhone, he can’t use FaceTime, and you’ll need to find an alternative app to use when calling him on New Year’s Eve.

Google’s Hangouts

While FaceTime is solely for one-to-one calls, Google’s Hangouts really shine with group calls, hence the name. Up to ten people at a time can hop onto a group video chat through Hangouts, and a clear, easy-to-digest interface makes it easy to see and hear everyone at once. What’s more, it can be used on both Android and iOS smartphones as an app, or on pretty much any computer through a browser, making it one of the most flexible options for video calls. There’s also a good chance that you and the person you’re calling already have a Google or Gmail account, which is necessary to use Hangouts. In addition to the group feature, Hangouts also lets you share your screen with others, which means it has some usefulness in an office setting, too.

Skype

Though it never quite reached the brand-as-generic-term status enjoyed by Kleenex and Xerox, Skype is nonetheless one of the oldest and best-known options for video calls and instant messaging. That means it has a pretty large contingent of users, so you’re likely to find it easy to get up and running with it. Available as an app for most smartphone operating systems (i.e., Android, iOS, BlackBerry, etc.), or as software for desktop and laptop computers, it’s extremely versatile. But you’re also likely to find it in a few convenient places where you won’t find the other apps on this list: your TV and your DVD player. In recent years, a number of manufacturers have started selling TVs and DVD players with built-in streaming apps for everything from Netflix to Amazon Video to, yes, Skype. If you’ve got one of those “smart” TVs, you may find Skype to be your best option.

Facebook Messenger

Speaking of having lots and lots (and lots) of users, there’s a good chance you’ve used, or at least heard of, this Facebook thing. If you’re a Facebook user and you want to video chat with another Facebook user, the Facebook Messenger app for your smartphone or computer might be a convenient choice. There’s not much in the way of features that set it apart significantly from the others on this list, so it may simply come down to a matter of convenience: using your existing Facebook account instead of signing up for yet another account with, say, Apple or Google.

Caveat

One thing to keep in mind is that smooth, high-definition video looks great and makes it feel like your kids two states away are right in front of you, but it also uses a lot of data. This is not as much of a concern on a home network but is something to keep in mind if video chatting on your smartphone when using cellular data. Depending on your data plan details, that 10-minute catch-up call with your niece may quickly eat up a big chunk of your monthly data allocation.

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