You know, voice-to-voice communication is just so one-dimensional. Today it's a simple matter to add faces and expressions and gestures to your digital conversations using one of the many video apps that span our computer-mobile universe. This article takes a look at five video apps you can use on PC, Mac, and a rainbow of mobile devices.
Note: This list is also available as a photo gallery.
1: Google+ HangoutsIf you have a Google+ account, you can create a hangout where one or more of your friends can join you for a video chat (Figure A). The whole thing is easy to set up and use (but a bit difficult to find, at first). Start by going to your Google+ page. In the Hangouts area on the right side of the screen, click Start A Hangout. Specify whether you want to invite everyone in your circles or you want to invite selected people, and then click Hang Out. If it's the middle of the workday and none of your contacts are playing around on Google+ (surprise, surprise), you might get a sad little robot telling you the whole place is empty. But you can still send an invitation or two. When those folks log on to Google+, they'll be notified that they have been heartily invited to a hangout. Others in your circles can also see that you're hanging out because it's plastered all over your Google+ page.
Google+ Hangouts: Fun, clean, and easy -- once you figure out how to create one.
2: TangoTango (Figure B) is a popular video communications app that is similar in approach to Skype -- free calls between mobile devices or between computers and phones, as long as you've downloaded and installed Tango. I have a Windows Phone and downloaded Tango, but unfortunately I couldn't try out the video feature. Calls, sure. (But I can do that on the phone anyway, right?)
Tango is a free video calling app you can use across PCs and phones... but none of my contacts have discovered it yet.
You can easily search for friends in your contact list who have already installed Tango or send invitations to those you want to try the app with you. You can also change Tango settings to control when the app starts, check for updates, and manage the microphone and camera you're using. Eager to experience at least one video call, I also downloaded Tango to my PC, thinking I could have video calls with others who do have forward-facing video on their phones. But none of my contacts have tried Tango yet, so I couldn't call anyone to test it out. What gives? When all the dots connect a bit better, I'll look forward to putting Tango through its paces.
3: SkypeSkype (Figure C) has now become so popular that it's a verb in its own right: "Want to Skype later? This app is also available for computers and mobile devices of all sorts. You can use Skype to call anyone who has it, anywhere in the world, for free. And those calls can be either voice calls or video calls, depending on whether you have a webcam or a phone with video handy.
What can't you do with Skype? The video wasn't the best quality, but it's better than just voice.
Making a Skype video call is simple. Log in to Skype (if you haven't yet signed up, it will take five or six minutes to enter your information and download the software), open your contacts list, click the name of the person you want to call (if he or she is online, the contact entry will have a green Skype logo to the left of the name), and click Video Call. Skype makes the connection and the person's face appears in the top portion of the call screen. Your own smaller mug appears in the lower portion.
You can Skype to your heart's content with no cost and no limitation. Skype has recently introduced a Facebook video-call option so that you can use Skype from within Facebook by clicking the Call button at the top of a Facebook friend's profile. If you want to spring for Skype Premium at $4.99 per month, you can video chat with up to 10 people at once. If you're happy with the free version of Skype, you're limited to one-to-one video calls. Of course, how many people you cram in the room is up to you!
4: AIM Video Chat
AIM (from AOL) appears to have undergone a major facelift recently. Its chat service now seeks to pull together all your contacts from a variety of places (like Facebook and Twitter) and coordinate your communications in one easy-to-track place. For video communication using your AIM account, it seems to be a passable service, although video isn't its primary offering.You can start a chat session and click the video camera icon to open up a video call window (Figure D). The rest is pretty straightforward. One odd thing here is that both my webcam and my microphone were turned off by default at first. So if others can't see or hear you during your video call, click Settings and make sure both the camera and mic are active.
AIM Video Chat is pretty straightforward -- a simple, face-to-face call.
You can also use AIM's Video Chat tool on the Web to have a quick video call without logging in anywhere or downloading the AIM client to your desktop. It's pretty basic but does the trick when you want a fast face-to-face.
ooVoo is another popular video, audio, and text app that enables you to stay in touch with friends and family using your desktop computer or your favorite mobile devices. You can create a six-way video chat, call mobile phones or land lines, text chat in a group, share your desktop, place Web video calls with others who aren't even using ooVoo, and share files up to 25MB in size. All for free.ooVoo makes it fairly simple to install and start a video call. Be forewarned, though: You will be inundated with advertising. In fact while I was writing this section I had a sneezing fit -- blasted allergies! -- so the tissue ad was brilliantly timed targeted marketing (Figure E). If you don't mind the continual rotating ads, ooVoo does have a number of features that redeem it. You can add folks to your conversation on the fly, change the display, record your conversation for later, and take snapshots of the screen.
ooVoo offers a number of interesting tools -- if you can get past the advertising.
Recommend video apps
What are your favorite apps for video communications? Share your recommendations with other TechRepublic members.
Katherine Murray is a technology writer and the author of more than 60 books on a variety of topics, ranging from small business technology to green computing to blogging to Microsoft Office 2010. Her most recent books include Microsoft Office 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), Microsoft Word 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), and Microsoft Word 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press, 2010).