6 of the best online video chat systems
11th Jan 2009 | 08:54
Chat over a video feed without downloading any software
Email is dead. Instant messaging is losing its momentum.
Even the mighty Facebook will be passé sooner than anyone thinks.
On the internet, video is the reigning champion and a nearly ubiquitous way to communicate in real time without actually being in the same room.
As with most mobile technologies, one minute you think a communication medium has stagnated or become a standard (if such a thing exists), and then the walls come down, the natives get restless and somebody invents something new.
Such is the case with video chat software. Even though it may seem like your metallic-blue Sony VAIO is prepped and ready with software that uses the built-in webcam, the reality is that the internet is a faster, more reliable and more compatible way to hold a video chat session.
Your webcam is now a portal to sites like Imo.im, UStream, and Tokbox that let you chat over a video feed without downloading any software. The benefit for mobile users is speed: you can fire up a site and start chatting in seconds. And the person on the other end of the video chat doesn't have to install any software either.
In this overview, we'll cover the best internet chat portals for mobile users, including one that works over social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
You'd expect an intelligent web service from a group of ex-Google employees, but what sets Imo.im apart from the competition is that you can use your existing instant messaging client – such as MSN or Yahoo! – and log in just a few seconds, and then click one button to start using your webcam. You'll see your buddy lists from those clients, and can set a simple away message.
The service is almost instantaneous, without any software to download, and it found the webcam in our Lenovo SL300 test machine without any configuration at all. You can add buddies and login to multiple IM clients at the same time. The service supports MSN, Yahoo!, Skype, MySpace, AOL AIM and Google Talk, and the online client supports English and Spanish. There's also a quick button that lets you position the IM chat window to the left or right of your browser in a separate window, which looks almost exactly like the software client.
During several video chats, the service never crashed or caused any stuttering problems that are common with fledgling video chat clients. Imo.im also offers a Windows client version of the software. Imo.im has very little pizzazz and minimal features, but it gets you chatting over video quickly. Imo.im does an amazing job of keeping the video feed clear.
Tokbox is only slightly more complicated to set up than Imo.im because you have to create a new account. At that point, you can text chat with only MSN, AOL AIM users and, of course, other Tokbox users, so there's no support for Google Talk or Skype, for example. (Tokbox just introduced a Facebook add-on that works within that social networking site, however.)
To video chat, your buddies who use MSN and Yahoo! have to create a Tokbox account. Once it's running, the Tokbox service runs just as smoothly as Imo.im. The interface uses a bright green and blue design that is easy to use – you can move talk sessions around on the screen, and they have a cool drop-shadow effect.
The service also supports video voice mail so friends can leave you a message, and you can post public video messages. There's also a way to find friends online and to open your video chat up so anyone can find you.
Tokbox is the easiest video chat site we have found, making it easy for mobile users to communicate with co-workers. We had very few problems using the service, both on a Mac and a PC, and the video feed looked smooth and stutter-free during several test calls over both a home network and the internet.
Palbee is quite a bit different from the other online chat clients available. For starters, it is essentially a meeting place with a whiteboard, text chat, document sharing, and rudimentary drawing tools that allow business associates to share ideas online. It makes it more like Twiddla (see overleaf) than Windows Live Messenger.
Yet a focus point for Palbee is that it allows you to share your video feed during a meeting, so it's useful as a video chat tool. And it runs entirely on the web using Adobe Flash, so there is no software to install or configure (unless of course your PC or Mac does not have Flash installed yet, but most have it pre-installed).
Meetings use a default timer countdown of one hour, but you can change this or add more time to the meeting anytime you want. It locks the meeting participants into a more obvious online meeting paradigm without using the more freeform structure of a Tokbox or Imo.im chat.
Palbee is a brand new portal and some of the bugs have not been worked out quite yet. During testing, the site crashed a few times and showed several error messages. And the video streaming – which is a central part of the meeting but obviously not the only feature – ran a bit choppy at times, especially if we started running any other software or visited other media-intensive sites, such as YouTube.
We also noticed that Palbee does not work with a Mac – it won't recognise the built-in webcam.
SightSpeed is a well-known chat client that normally runs as a program in Windows. This light version runs directly within MySpace (there is also a version for Facebook, but it didn't work properly at press time).
Once you load the application – a simple matter of searching for it, and clicking an 'add application' button – you can chat between other MySpace users with just a few clicks. There are even options for holding a 'multipoint' talk where multiple people use the SightSpeed Light client to conference together.
Once you actually start a chat, the 'light' moniker in SightSpeed Light starts to make sense – there are no options for voicemail, text chat, or really anything except a basic video window where you can talk to other MySpace users. Still, the benefit of keeping the conversation online where you can keep in contact with friends and business associates outweighs the paltry feature set, even when you know you can go and download the full SightSpeed client for Windows and get a lot more control over the window size and other settings.
You may decide to forgo a video chat and create an online collaboration session instead. It's like holding a whiteboard session, without the exorbitant web conferencing fees and the hassle of downloading a client.
Another benefit is you don't have to think about how you look and you don't need a webcam on your laptop to collaborate online without a video feed.
(free for sign-up)
One of the latest and best Web 2.0 services for collaboration – currently free to use – is called Vyew. Part desktop-sharing agent (you can share whatever is on your desktop), part whiteboard tool (where you can draw diagrams and compare notes), and part instant messaging chat client, Vyew (pronounced 'view') has one main strength: it's fast.
In one click, you can hold a web conference without having to install any Java clients or complicated software. For mobile users, that's important because we are always in a hurry to set up our laptop quickly and start being productive. No one likes to install software first before you can start discussing that new marketing proposal with the home office in Holland.
Vyew also supports Firefox (including the latest version 3.0) and Internet Explorer, runs fast and without any bugs, and helps you collaborate smoothly.
Vyew is free for 20 users with ads, but to host more participants without as many ads, you have to pay about £5 per month, including VAT. Also, customisation add-ons such as a private URL cost about £5.
Similar to Vyew, Twiddla is a bit more streamlined for online collaboration, in that it is mainly just a whiteboard. You can draw objects, chat in an instant messaging client online, and even talk to participants using an audio streaming component. But the most impressive feature is that you can browse to websites and then mark them up and discuss them with meeting participants.
There's also no registration process and sign-up to speak of – you can start a meeting with one click, invite people to attend, hold the meeting, browse sites, and then close the meeting without ever having given your name or email address to anyone.
This incognito aspect of using Twiddla makes it one of the best Web 2.0 sites we've used and, while Vyew is more powerful, Twiddla is a boon for mobile users short on time but burdened with work. Of course, you can also register (still for free) and host private meetings and schedule online appointments or even hold recurring meetings, if you decided not to be anonymous.
First published in What Laptop, Issue 119
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