7 low-cost videoconferencing services: Which is best for your meeting?
Skype has become a popular choice for free VoIP communication, with two-person video chat as a standard feature. Version 5.1, released in January 2011, added multiperson videoconferencing as well.
The free edition of Skype allows multiuser chat, but only one person in such a chat can have video active. To enable group videoconferencing, at least one person on the call needs to have a Skype Premium subscription, for which you can purchase a day pass ($4.99) or a subscription on a monthly ($8.99), quarterly ($20.23), or annual ($53.94) basis.
If you don't need anything too ambitious, Skype may be the best place to start. To begin with, odds are that you and your cohorts already have the program. If you don't, it's free to download and use. Skype also makes Android and iOS clients, although they don't support multiperson videoconferencing, just conventional one-on-one video chat.
I'd been a regular Skype user for some time before trying out the videoconferencing feature, which simply adds multiple video feeds to Skype's existing group-chat format. That makes it relatively easy for a Skype user to dive in, which is a nice plus, although it does nothing for people who already dislike Skype's somewhat clunky and cluttered interface.
As with most other teleconferencing applications, Skype automatically tracks who is speaking and gives that person's video feed prominence. (If several people try to talk at once, it doesn't switch.) If you have multiple monitors, the screen-sharing function lets you pick one and share whatever's on that display to everyone in the conference. It's not interactive, though; you can't give mouse or keyboard control to another user.
Moderator control for group chats is limited: You can mute your own mike and disable your own camera, but not someone else's. It would also have been nice for Skype's file-sending feature to deliver files to everyone in a conference at once, but it's limited to one person at a time. And the only way to do whiteboarding or advanced file sharing is through third-party add-ons, such as IDroo.
Using Skype for videoconferencing has some other downsides. For one, discussion groups can't be very large: they're capped at a maximum of ten people, and Skype recommends that you only have five or fewer people in a group conference to avoid performance problems.
Another possible obstacle is Skype's fair-use policy for group video calls, which allows a maximum of 10 hours per day, 100 hours per month and 4 hours per call. Exceeding these limits causes any active call to be downgraded to audio-only. That said, these limits shouldn't pose a problem for most business conferences.
Also, if you plan on logging videoconferences through Skype, be warned the program has no native way to do this. You'll have to either use one of a number of Skype plugins that perform call recording or a third-party program that does the same. Evaer, for example, can record calls and video in the MP3 and MPEG-4 formats, and includes all the needed codecs.
Skype is a good place to start for conferencing, thanks to the ubiquity of the program, provided you have at least one user with a paid account. Lack of call recording without third-party add-ons is a major minus.
The best place to start on a low (or nonexistent) budget is Google+ Hangouts. Skype's a close second, although it requires you or someone in your circle to have a paid account.
Cisco WebEx Meetings earns many pluses for its free starter tier, support for multiple client types, and full conference recording. Brother OmniJoin lacks Mac support, but has a good roster of end-user tools for conference logging and checking connection quality.
Citrix GoToMeeting has good interactivity and sharing, but limited session-recording, and no free tier. Adobe Connect has broad platform support and very well-thought-out presenter's features, despite having no free tier either. And while Lync has a good deal of promise, the release version of the service needs to be more polished -- and have a more consistent Mac client -- than what we saw.
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.
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