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The video chatting sphere is really heating up online. In roughly the same week, Facebook announced their partnership with Skype and Google rolled out Hangout in their Google+. FaceTime for Mac hit the Mac App Store not too long ago and is set to get much bigger with Lion. Meanwhile, old hand Skype was bought by Microsoft just this year. Clearly, everyone's investing in video in a big way.
Mark Zuckerberg's baby made a big splash this past week by announcing Skype integration in Facebook chatting. Users were no longer limited to mere text and emoticons; now they could actually see their friends, hear their friends, and judge their friends' sense of fashion.
The question was, how well did it stack up, and could Facebook's servers handle the sudden influx of video data?
This was a piece of cake to use
Set up was a snap. By going to www.facebook.com/videocalling, you were directed to download a small (481KB) plug-in and you were good to go. A new icon shows up in your chat window when you click on a person's name, a familiar little camera. Click on that and if your friends have the plug-in installed, you're good to go. If not, they'll be directed to download and install it.
Picture quality was decent, though not as good as Skype itself
Picture quality was fair and sound quality worked well most of the time for us. We could resize our chat window down to a certain point though it was clear that this was a much less fully featured version of Skype calling. By the same token, while our actual Skype address book is fairly small, our Facebook address book offers a much bigger range of people to chat with. With its easy set up and most monitors coming camera ready these day, Facebook Video Calling is something your grandmother wouldn't find too difficult.
Once you hit install, it's as easy as pie to start a video chat
By the same token, asking Grandma to set up a Gmail account or download, install, and set up full Skype is a bit more to manage. But that we can leave grandma a video birthday message if she's not available is quite the lovely feature.
The strangest aspect to Facebook's video window was that it stayed on top of our screen. We'd click on the larger windows behind so we could manage our emails or look for that link we wanted to share with the person we were chatting with and the Video Calling window was always on top of things. This prioritized our conversation but it made multitasking more complicated.
Once you finally make it through the whole Google+ invite process, there isn't much to do to get set up video chatting here. Of course, Google's been a bit stingy in the rollout and even if they say everyone can get in, that's not turned out to be the case. If you've already installed the Google Voice and Video set up, there's not much to do to get started.
Install the plug in to get it rockin'
If not, just like Facebook Video Calling, you download a small plug-in that essentially loads itself. From there click on green "Start a Hangout" button on your Google+ Home page. A new pop up window appears. You can select which of your Google social Circles can be part of the Hangout even down to inviting only one person. Of course, people in your Circle's Circles might see you're hanging out even if they can't join. There's something a little more transparent about that, though it would be nice to get a more fine-grained control over this kind of announcement.
Hangout button is hanging out
Once people join your hang out, they appear in a small video box near the bottom of the pop-up and at the top in a larger box. Click on the small box at the bottom and you can report Hangout people for harassment and the like or mute them out of a conversation entirely.
Controls let you mute your microphone or your video camera or both. Click on Chat and you can also have a text conversation going on as well. An odd little addition is the YouTube button where Hangout participants can be forced to watch the cat videos you select.
Catch up with YouTube while chatting with friends
Google Hangout's picture quality wavered between quite good and awful at times and it includes a strange quirk. When you have more than three people in a Hangout, the large top picture switches depending on who's talking. What if more than one person talks at a time? Hangout apparently prioritizes your friend with the biggest mouth, as volume seems to be the indicator of prominence. Fitting, we suppose, for a social network but often distracting and degrading to chat quality. People try all speaking at the same time, the sound goes in and out, the picture flickers back and forth, image quality plummets, and your Hangout goes south.
Online Editor Roberto Baldwin looks down on you in judgement
While we love the ability to put multiple chatters into one big box, Google Hangout clearly needs some server/software side love to get it up to speed.
There's a reason why Facebook (and MySpace before them) wanted to partner with Skype for video chatting. The now-Microsoft-owned VoIP giant crushes the competition when it comes to video quality. Of course, it's a dedicated app in its own right, available in desktop and mobile flavors, and allows for instant messaging, straight voice calls, and video chatting.
No one really knows that you're actually a dog using the internet
Yes, set up is more complicated (you may want to do it for Grandma if you want to keep her in the loop on holidays when she's not there), but it's no harder than installing any other and it even comes in a portable flash drive version with all the same benefits. Once you've set up the software, it's as easy as typing in your password and clicking the camera or phone icon next to one of your contact's names.
Say something pithy about yourself
Of the three we've covered so far, Skype had the best quality video streaming and sound. Pictures were crisp and clear (lighting in the room you're in a major factor no matter which service you use) with very little pixelation. You can add multiples to the conversation without any significant degrading of picture or sound quality, and Skype has opted to go the route of keeping your chatters equal.
That means every box is prioritized the same. No fast switching in the one big box to whoever is currently shouting the loudest. Every one of your chatters are the same size. This helps keep things from getting confusing very quickly. Sure, Google+ works like real world conversations where we all turn to look at the person speaking, but that doesn't work so well in video chatting. It also keeps their chat side servers from having to perform the additional tasks of measuring sound volume and reprioritizing video feeds which at this point throws things for a loop.
This dog can type emoticons while chatting. Good dog!
But for that, Google+ is the closest in execution to what Skype has going on. Both offer the ability to chat in text alongside your video, both allow you to minimize the chat window or to hide it behind other screens while you do something else on the monitor, both allow you temporary muting of mic and or picture. Skype also includes a directory to let you find businesses that have integrated it into their model.
Skype even lets you chat with your PC bretheren
Planning a vacation to Scotland? Use Skype to make free calls to bed & breakfasts listed there. Going skiing in Switzerland? No reason why you should have to take a hit on international dialing rates if your chalet offers Skype for international travelers. At this point, businesses are rare in the Google+ world and we're not aware of Facebook letting Pages interact with users in this fashion. That's another leg up for the this app, as if the video quality wasn't enough.
FaceTime, like so many Apple products, just worked. It is very easy to set up, as long as you have Snow Leopard installed on your Mac or an iPhone 4 or iPad 2. On the Mac, you will download FaceTime for $0.99 from the Mac App Store. On your iOS device, it will be baked right in.
Taunt hungry friends with your tasty meals
To get started on the iPhone, you simply tap the FaceTime button in your phone app. To get started on your Mac, you sign in using your Apple ID and go from there. If you have been using MobileMe or an an Apple provided email, there's less hassle about contacts. However, other email accounts will require you to manually add your contacts one by one.
Contacts: easy come, easy go
This isn't such a big deal because FaceTime is limited to Mac users and those sporting in iOS device with front facing camera -- a significantly smaller demographic than Facebook users. FaceTime is also limited to voice and video chatting and does not include instant messaging such as Google Hangout or Skype.
Because Apple has limited FaceTime use to their own devices it works seamlessly. Sound quality was excellent, picture quality was the crispest and clearest of all, and there seemed to be no lag in conversation. Apple's clearly invested a good deal into making this the most beautiful of all the video chatting options out there. The default chat window is the size of an iPhone screen but you can switch to full size screen takes up your entire monitor.
If they taunt you with food, catch them as they eat
A very nice feature FaceTime offers that the others do not is that if you are at your Mac or if you are on your iOS device, if someone tries to contact you for a little face time, all of your enabled devices will ring. Users can also switch between their iPhone, their iPod or their Mac laptop or desktop without any issues.
At this time FaceTime can't support multiple conversationalists in its video streaming, though there have been rumors that this may be coming in a future update. If Apple can determine a way to compress audio and video without sacrificing the quality of the sound and image that will be something worth seeing.
Only current conferencing in FaceTime: Robbie's head
With some Macs sporting high definition (HD) monitors and iPhone 4s and beyond featuring Retina Display, Apple has clearly not skimped on the video quality. Currently FaceTime only works over Wi-Fi or a wired connection and with this quality audio and video we can easily see why 3G was not included, especially in the age of bandwidth limitations.
At this point, there's a little to love about all of the various video chatting services. Google Hangout lets us watch kittens while we wait for other people to show up but has terrible compression on sound and video. Facebook Video Calling is the easiest set up and has the potential to hit the biggest market of all of the, but the single person limit and the relatively poor video quality are also an issue. Skype has great quality picture and sound plus multiparty conference calling, but getting started using it is a little more than some people are going to want to bother with and who wants yet another account to sign in to? FaceTime works great and if you know a lot of people with Macs or iOS devices, then it's great, otherwise you'll be having some very high quality, very lonely parties by yourself.