See and speak: a guide to making video calls

Would you like to see who you're talking to? Making video calls is easier than you think. CNET.com.au steps you through the options.

Ian Grayson
7 min read

We humans are a very visual lot. Ever since someone scratched the first drawing on a cave wall to tell a story, we've relied on images to get our point across.

Video calls

Today, nothing much has changed. Visual images tell us everything from how good that new suit looks to the mood of our co-workers as they arrive at the office.

Indeed, experts agree we constantly use non-verbal queues to give more meaning to our communication. It might be hard to tell if someone's lying when they're on the phone, but see them face to face and it's a totally different matter. Think your boss is being sarcastic? Just watch her expression and you'll know.

Obviously it's not always possible to be near the person you're communicating with, but, armed with the right equipment, you can have the next best thing -- video calling. Once the exclusive domain of large companies with big budgets, video calling has gone mainstream and growing numbers of people are finding out just what a difference it can make.

Whether you're travelling on business and want to say goodnight to your children, or just gossiping with a friend across town, making a video call adds another dimension to the experience.

And the good news? It's easy to do. Gone are the days of needing expensive equipment and costly data links. Indeed, many homes already have all the gear required. It's simply a matter of following a few simple steps and you're away.


What hardware do you need?
Aside from a PC or Mac and a decent Internet connection (ADSL or cable is best), you'll need a video camera (or Webcam) to capture images of your smiling face.

There are many different models of Webcams on the market tailored to different requirements and budgets, so it's worth spending a little time to compare offerings from different companies.

It's also worth considering whether you'll be making most of your video calls from a desktop or notebook computer as this will have a bearing on the type and size of camera you should buy. Check out the CNET.com.au Webcam Buying Guide for details on a range of models currently on the market.

Of course, increasing numbers of notebook computers have inbuilt Webcams, which does away with the need for a separate external device. Virtually all of the recently reviewed laptops on CNET.com.au sport one, from the tiny, cheap and cheerful ASUS EeePC to the mammoth HP Pavilion HDX "Dragon".

How to get connected
Once you've set up your Webcam, the next step is to choose a method of connecting to the people you want to call.

Just as telephone calls go through an exchange and e-mails through your Internet provider's servers, so video calls need a method of finding their way through the Internet to the person you're calling. Luckily there are a range of services you can use.

Each service has dedicated computer servers that take your incoming video signals and pass them on to the person you're trying to reach. Once they answer your call, their video images are passed back through the Internet to your PC.

Some of the most popular video calling services are offered by companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft and Skype. As well as being easy to use, they have the big benefit that video calls can be made for free.

(Credit: Yahoo7)

Yahoo offers a suite of communications tools called
Yahoo7 Messenger, available for download. As well as video calls, Messenger gives you access to a wide range of other services. These include everything from e-mail and instant messaging to search and Internet radio stations.

When logged into the service you have the option of making your Webcam available to others. When they accept your invitation they'll be able to see you. Accept an invitation from them, and you'll be able to do the same.

You'll need to juggle a number of windows to see and be seen using this service, but the quality of the video broadcasts is worth the effort. If you're using a decent speed broadband connection, Yahoo7 automatically detects it and offers a "super" button within the window. Selecting this gives you more detailed video images.

(Credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger
Microsoft's Live Messenger software makes video calling very straightforward. First download the application and install it on your computer. Then work through the series of wizards which helps ensure you have the correct settings and levels for your audio and video gear.

You'll need to sign up for a Windows Live (or Hotmail) account and then use your created ID to sign in to the service. Once that's done, it's simply a matter of selecting the person you want to call from your contact list and establishing a video call.

When they answer, you will receive video from their Webcam while being able to see what video you are sending them in a second smaller window. As well as the two-way video call, you can also conduct a text chat within the same application.

(Credit: Skype)

Because of the popularity of Skype, chances are you'll find more of your friends and family using this service than any other.

Start by downloading the latest version of the free Skype client software (version 3.6) onto your PC and set it up by following the straightforward wizards. If you don't already have a Skype name you can also select one at this point.

Skype has been working closely with Webcam manufacturer Logitech to improve the standard of video calls on its service and now offers what it calls "High Quality Video".

This new service uses an image resolution of 640x480 pixels running at up to 30 frames per second. This compares with the previous system that offered resolutions of only 320x240 pixels at 15 frames per second.

Skype recommends users wanting to make video calls have a computer with a dual-core processor and a broadband Internet connection. The company warns that, while video calls are possible with other types of Webcams, you can only get the higher resolutions when using models from Logitech. Recommended models include the QuickCam Pro 9000 and the Logitech QuickCam Sphere AF.

(Credit: SightSpeed)

Other options
As well the services listed above, you can also opt to use one of a range of other dedicated video calling services that exist on the Internet. One example is SightSpeed which offers a free service allowing PC to PC video calls.

Built from the ground up for video calling, SightSpeed has an easy-to-use interface and a proprietary processing algorithm that removes unnecessary information from images -- such as backgrounds that don't change. The end result is more fluid video and a better overall experience.

For consumers there is a free version as well as a paid version with extra features. There is also another version available for business users.

The free consumer service lets you conduct person-to-person video calls, instant messaging sessions and provides a video e-mail box where others can leave messages when you are not online.

The paid version (currently available for US$9.95 per month) adds the ability to make four-way video calls and gives unlimited storage space for video messages.

Mobile video calls
Another way to enjoy video calls is to forget about your PC and instead grab your mobile phone. As the speeds offered by mobile networks have increased during recent years, using a compatible handset to make and receive video calls has become reality.

Third-generation networks operated by Telstra, Vodafone, Optus and 3 Mobile all support video calls. It's worth checking out the Web sites of each of the carriers as prices and available handsets are different for each.

Video call quality on mobile handsets tends to be lower than that available on PCs, however the convenience of being able to make the calls from wherever you happen to be can make up for any shortfalls.

How to get the best possible video calling experience
Once your Webcam and video calling service is up and running, there are a few easy tips to follow that will ensure you have the best possible online experience. They include: