We live in a video-centric world. YouTube and Netflix make up 50 percent of total traffic on the Internet in North America. Twitter’s mobile app, Vine, with its six-second clips, hit 40 million users in just months; Facebook-owned photo-sharing service Instagram answered with its own video option and up to 15 seconds of video. The list goes on. Everyone loves unboxing videos, creative TV commercials (as long as they’re not on TV), and video games. Sixty-two percent of Internet users either create or share video content.
But there’s one place video still hasn’t made great inroads to our daily lives: our personal and business phone calls.
Despite the promise of every single science-fiction show from The Jetsons to Star Trek where every call is on a screen, we don’t all have video phones at the ready for talking to loved ones. Well we dothey’re called smartphones, tablets, and PCsbut for the most part people still eschew video chatting.
Even so, it’s out there and when it’s not free, it’s affordable. Several good programs didn’t make this list because they cost a small monthly fee outside of a trial period to get you hooked. The reason for that: trafficking all that video on the tubes of the Net is expensive, and higher-quality streaming uses even more bandwidth, which naturally costs more. For-fee services include those from vendors like Adobe and Citrix.
Even voice isn’t easy, but for a different reason: it doesn’t make companies a lot of money. Skype, the behemoth of voice over IP (VoIP)the protocol used for making calls over the Internetdoesn’t earn much money for its corporate owner, Microsoft. But Microsoft knows video can make the difference, which is why it bought Skype and integrated it with all the services it could.
Top Free Video Conferencing Software
Google Hangouts(Opens in a new window)
Web | iOS | Android
The social media-ification of Google started with the launch of Google+, which subsequently converted the well-established Google Talk (Gtalk) into Google+ Hangouts. Annoying as all the changes may be, there’s no question the video chat capabilities Google has created are powerful and simple to use.
There’s no big, executable software to download and install on the desktop, but you will need to add a Hangouts plugin(Opens in a new window) to your browser. It’s available for most modern browsers, even Internet Explorer. Sign into Google+, make sure Hangouts is signed in, and you’ll see your buddy list on the right. Pick a name and you’ll see a chat window. Click the video camera icon to start a video chat. It couldn’t be simpler.
Despite supposedly being optimized for slow connections, the quality isn’t always great even though Hangouts supports HD video, but the setup and execution are about as easy as it gets. And since just about everyone has a Google account, the user base for Hangouts is pretty huge (even if your parents don’t realize they have it).
Hangouts beats Skype based on what it offers for free, such as the ability to have up to nine people in your video chat. Extra server-side apps can augment your conversation, such as tools for sharing presentations and YouTube videos, or even full remote desktop takeover controls. And the Hangouts On Air(Opens in a new window) feature makes you a live video podcaster, instantly recording your video conversations to share with others via Google+ and YouTube.
Skype(Opens in a new window)
Windows | Windows 8 | Mac OS | Linux | iOS | Android | Windows Phone | BlackBerry | PlayStation Vita | Xbox One
Skype is the de facto standard in video chat between two people. However, each participant must have a Skype account and it’s only free when you’re talking one-on-one. Group video chatting requires a premium subscription, which starts at $4.99 a month. While video chatting you can instant message, show off your desktop screen, and share files. If the other person doesn’t answer your call you can leave a video message. Skype also powers the video capabilities inside Facebook.
Skype’s interface on the desktop ranges from ultra-simple (like the version for Windows 8) to rather complicated (like on the Editors’ Choice Windows desktop). They don’t always have a unified look and feel, but Skype has an almost unprecedented reach. Whether you’re on your desktop, mobile, or even your game console, you’ll have the option to video chat with someone else on any other platform. Skype is reportedly even working on a future 3D video chat service.
FaceTime(Opens in a new window)
Mac OS | iOS
What started as a way for iPhone users to video chat has become the entire Apple ecosystem’s one-to-one video conferencing tool, if for no other reason than it comes free with all Mac and iDevices, from the fourth-gen iPhone and iPod touch, second-gen iPad, and Mac OS X Lion (10.7) on up.
Once you register your phone number and/or email addresses with the service, you can then find others. If you know another user’s contact info and they’re also using an Apple device, making a video call is as simple as making a phone call. That’s the major strength, along with very high video quality. The problem with FaceTime is that it’s not on any other platform (despite Steve Jobs once claiming Apple would make it an open standard). That’s probably on purpose now because it arguably helps Apple sell more devices.
Other Free Video Conferencing Software
CamFrog(Opens in a new window)
Windows | Mac OS | Linux (Server only) | iOS | Android | Windows Phone
CamFrog lets you set up Web-based video chatrooms where you or others with a webcam can join a conversation. One-on-one conversations are also an option and you only need a webcam to be seen, not to see others. Plus it’ll do voice and text if you don’t want others to see you.
Cisco WebEx Meetings(Opens in a new window)
Anyone who holds a lot of online meetings has probably run into Webex. It’s a standard way to share a desktop and do an online whiteboard, but it also offers VoIP features, even on the free level that includes standard-quality video chat. Naturally you’ll have to pay for high-definition video.
Jitsi(Opens in a new window)
Windows | Mac OS | Linux
Like your free software of the more open-source and unlimited variety? Jitsi (formerly the SIP Communicator) fits the bill nicely, with almost nightly new builds of the multi-protocol software; it’s ICQ for video and does SIP or XMPP-based video and audio, and works with Yahoo Messenger and AIM for text chat.
ooVoo(Opens in a new window)
Windows | Mac OS | iOS | Android | Facebook
ooVoo takes on Skype directly by providing features like IMs, free voice calls to any phone, screen sharing, and file sharingand on the video side it offers group video chat with up to 12 people, along with video call recording directly to YouTube. There’s a Facebook app(Opens in a new window) that lets you join a video chat right from the Web. It’s ad-supported unless you make an upgrade to premium for $2.99 a month.
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