Videoconferencing on the cheap

More than a nerdy novelty, video chat gives you face time with family, friends, colleagues and customers -- with or without a PC

Chat is cheap. Videoconferencing, on the other hand, gives your online conversations a more personal feeling. For telecommuting, keeping in touch with clients, calling home from a business trip or just checking in with out-of-state relatives, you're never more than a smile away if you have a webcam and some free software.

I'll explain how to get started, and I'll also offer some helpful tips for getting the most out of your video chats.

Pick a camera

Although you obviously can't do videoconferencing without a camera, what sort of camera you use doesn't actually matter much. Since your Internet connection will likely throttle the performance of any videoconference, a high-resolution camera can actually be a waste of money. Nevertheless, keeping in mind some important differences between camera models can help you find the best hardware for your setup.

Resolution and frame rate allow for the clearest distinctions between models. Ideally, pick a camera that captures natively at 640-by-480 resolution or better, with a speed of 30 frames per second.

Some webcams record at high-definition resolutions, but you'll rarely be able to transmit such dense images through a home Internet connection. Office networks are sometimes fast enough to take advantage of a bigger picture, but most IT professionals would probably frown on employees hogging their network bandwidth for HD video chats.

Most important: Be wary of any camera that advertises a resolution higher than that its sensor. Such models attempt to make an image look sharper through a software trick called interpolation, but their images often look worse than those from a noninterpolating camera -- especially over a slow connection.

Many webcams include built-in microphones that do an excellent job of picking up your voice from a few feet away. Built-in mics aren't always the best choice for all situations, though. In a busy office, for instance, ambient noise can be so loud that even a high-quality noise-canceling microphone can't cut through the chatter.

Built-in microphones also tend to produce echo effects as they pick up the voices coming out of your nearby speakers. So if you want to ensure that your voice gets through clearly, consider investing in a good headset microphone that will isolate your voice and deliver incoming audio directly to your ears.

Although it may seem like a petty consideration, you should pick a webcam that looks appealing to you. It will probably be sitting directly in front of you whenever you're at your desk, so choose one you won't mind looking at all the time.

Also, consider how the device will mount on your setup. Most attach to the top of your monitor, and some even come with versatile mounts that can hang over the top of a laptop display without falling off. In most cases, you'll want to mount it just above the screen, as close to the center as possible. That way, you'll be more likely to make eye contact (or at least appear to be making eye contact) with the people you talk to.

Naturally, if your computer or monitor came with a webcam built in, you don't need to bother with an external camera.

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