Video chat

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like using the telephone. I do all the time, because everybody else does, or at least everyone my age. Young people more and more just use texting, and I suspect some of that comes from the same telephone reluctance I have.

I’m not sure why more people I know don’t use the technology that makes telephone reluctance a non-issue: video chatting via computer or smart phone. I mean, the technology is everywhere, and it’s almost like being together in person. Not quite, and I still prefer face-to-face visits. But video chatting is the next best thing, and in some ways, it’s better.

If I am my camera right, I don’t have to worry about cleaning up the whole house before a visit. Plus, video chat only carries sight and sound–no odors so far.

Friends and family are now scattered everywhere. I’d rather visit in person, but I can’t. Things like, Hangouts, Skype are better than phone calls, emails, letters, etc.

Like anything else, various solutions have advantages and disadvantages.


If you have a computer already with a microphone and a webcam, then you’re all set. This is where I would recommend starting if you have never video chatted before. You may have all this and not even realize it. Most laptops these days come with a built-in microphone and webcam.

If you don’t already these, they are inexpensive to get. I would recommend getting a USB headset [TK] and a basic webcam [TK] since you’re not going for studio quality. These things all together cost only $[TK].

If these are built into your computer, it’s still probably worthwhile getting an inexpensive set of earbuds. While you can just use the speakers from your computer, doing so can lead to an echo-like sound on the call, or even feedback. This is not an issue with USB headphones, which incorporate the microphone and earphones into a single unit and prevent the feedback loop.

If you don’t have a computer (or your computer does not have microphone and webcam), but you do have a smart phone, then again, I would say just go with that. You probably also have some earbuds that go along with it. If so, use those. The highest quality will come from earbuds that incorporate a microphone, but at least plugging in a pair of earbuds will enable you to hear the other party more easily.


There are lots of different ways to interact via video chat, so I’m going to just focus on three and mention one other.

First, the mention. If you have an iOS device, and the person you want to talk with does also, and you have your device connected to WiFi, then use FaceTime. It’s pretty intuitive and doesn’t require a whole lot other than the phone number of the person you’re trying to contact. You can even call them on a “regular” phone call first, and then switch to video chat. (Disclaimer: I understand the English grammar issues involves with using “them” and “they” as third-person singular. I’m just tired of writing “s/he” or “him/her,” etc., and I don’t want to keep recasting sentences to avoid singular subjects and objects. English already uses “you” as both a singular and a plural pronoun, and I suspect over the next hundred years it will continue in this direction. It grates on my old ears, but it is becoming more and more acceptable, as even my English faculty colleagues occasionally say.)

But not everyone has an iOS device, and the three apps we will consider work on any device, including computers.


Skype is the grandfather of this genre. I honestly have mixed feelings about it, since its acquisition by Microsoft has led to some, um, issues. I also find it annoying on a PC, because once you install it, it insists on living in the “Notification area” (the area in the lower-right screen that old-time users often call the “system tray” or the “systray”). All that stuff loaded in the systray runs in the background and takes up memory, and I sometimes spend a half day clearing it out and getting rid of stuff that doesn’t need to be there all the time. I hate it that Skype adds to that clutter.

Still, if you’re going to use Skype a lot, maybe for business (because it can act just like a regular telephone, with a number and everything), it sort of makes sense.

For all other platforms, you have a great deal of control concerning when Skype is on and when it is off. The service has changed over the years, and I can’t keep up with what’s included in the free version vs. what requires you to upgrade. For sure, for a one-to-one call you can use the free version, and Skype will run over cellular data, whereas for some carriers FaceTime will not. Be careful with that, since you can easily run over your data cap with Skype (or FaceTime, with those carriers that will allow it). Still, it’s nice to have the option.

Skype will also let you hold conference calls via audio, and it may let you have more than one person on with video–but I’m not sure if that comes with the free version or requires the upgrade (it has varied over the years).

For any platform, though, you have to set up an account, and you have to install the Skype client for your platform.

Google Hangouts

Some years ago Google rolled out their browser-based video chat service, which is completely free, and then later released apps for Android and iOS. Like all things Google, Hangouts regularly goes through updates and changes. I can never remember from one month to the next how best to get on with someone. I’m fairly technical, and I find it to be slightly daunting to get connected via Hangouts. But once you do, it’s a high-quality experience, with a lot of bells and whistles and capabilities that are amazing for a free service.

You can have up to, I think, eight people on at the same time, all on video, and if you choose to do so, you can connect to “Hangouts on Air” which will save a recording of the interaction direct to YouTube and allow potentially hundreds of people to follow the conversation live and even make comments during the live “broadcast.” Once you finish, the recording remains on YouTube and available for asynchronous viewing, subject to all the controls of any YouTube video. This is how a lot of webinar hosts get started, as well as video podcasts. It’s the means by which I co-host a video podcast for my college called “Mobile Talk.” (Subscribe if you like.)

I have found that using Google Hangouts for a simple video call can be like using a sledge hammer to swat a fly, so it may not be the best solution for casual personal video calls. But it could be a good solution for a virtual family reunion, and since you can set the YouTube video permissions to “private” (requiring an invitation before you can view it) or “unlisted” (so that anyone with the link can view it, but it won’t show to a search, so in practice you have to have the link just to find it), it’s a great way to share something with a select audience such as family members.

The phone apps are available for Android and iOS. Blackberry is iffy (I can’t confirm one way or the other), and I have no idea about Windows phones, but I think you should be able to go through the browser to make it work on that platform.

By the way, for any of these approaches, you will need to have a Google account. If you’ve never used Hangouts, but you have a Gmail account, there are relatively few hoops for you to jump through one time to get Hangouts working. But you can’t just start a Hangout without having an account.


For sheer simplicity, it’s hard to beat Appear.In. There are limitations: it officially only works with Chrome, Firefox, and Opera on a computer, and if you want the full experience (like being able to share your screen), you will have to use Chrome. No support for Internet Exploder (not that I care). While Skype and Hangouts both allow text-only interactions, Appear.In requires you to at least use a microphone.

But if you have a microphone and a webcam, you don’t even have to have an account. Hitting the web site will show you a randomly-generated room name. You can just enter it, and then text the link to your friend (or friends–up to eight). Give the site permission to access your microphone and web cam, and you’re on!

If you wish, you can claim a permanent room name associated with your email address (the closest thing to setting up an account), which gives you more control over the room, such as kicking out someone who is being disruptive.

There is no recording capability, but if you’re a little techy you can record a screen capture and accomplish something similar. For most video calls, that’s a non-issue.

If you want to use Appear.In on your smart phone, just grab the free app, available for both Android and iOS. You won’t have as much control as you do through a computer-based browser, but you’ll be able to take part. In my experience, Appear.In doesn’t eat up as much cellular data as either Skype or Hangouts. But although it will allow up to eight people, I have found that things really start to crawl if you get more than three or four people on.

Final recommendation

I’m thinking that for the average user who wants to try visiting with their families and friends remotely, Appear.In is going to be the most straightforward way to do it. Just be sure to download Chrome first, if you don’t already have it.

What are your thoughts? Have you tried video chatting with family and friends? Is this old hat to you? Does this give you a way to see your grandkids that live with your kids who moved halfway across the world? Let me know if this is helpful for you.

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