Connecting With Family & Friends Via Video Chat

by becky berg

When I was a child, Sundays meant going to church and then hopping in the car for a short drive to visit family and friends. As busy as our family seemed to be, Sunday was considered a day of R &R. As I became an adult, Sunday became the day of weekly calls home to moms, dads, and grandparents.

One recent Sunday, our family was having a rather lazy Sunday morning. After breakfast, we were hanging out on the couch, reading the paper and catching a little of the local news. I decide to grab my laptop to check my email and suddenly I hear a sound coming from my laptop ---“Doo, doo, doo-doo” (pause) Doo, doo, doo-doo.

The noise is coming from Google Video. This is a new feature within Gmail, Google’s email, that allows you to video chat. Aunt Judy from San Diego, wants to visit us this morning, via webcam. I click on the Answer button. On my computer, we can now see Aunt Judy and our cousin, Valentina. Our boys talk about their exciting Saturday adventure at The Reef Waterpark and Valentina plays a new song she’s learned on her clarinet. Old McDonald sounds pretty good after only 1 month of beginning band lessons!

The previous evening, Saturday night, we caught up with my dear friend Sonja and her family via Skype, another video conferencing option. Mark and I kicked back on the couch with the laptop and chatted about recent happenings. Graham, their 10 year old, chatted about his recent Destination Imagination trip to Nashville. It was great to see his facial expressions and gestures while telling about this adventure! Sonja even zoomed the webcam into the kitchen so we could see their new IKEA cabinets they installed in their 1950’s home. (They were fabulous by the way!)

Although the means of communication has changed throughout the decades, the importance of staying in touch with friends and relatives is still high on our priority list. Life is indeed about relationships and connections with other people. You can see by the above examples, that video chat can be a quick, enjoyable, and affordable way to stay in touch. Now, instead of taking a weekend drive to visit Aunt Brenda, we can video chat instead. Now…I know what you are thinking. There’s nothing better than a face -to -face visit. And, I might agree with that most days. But quite honestly, have you attempted to drive across Eastern Montana to Western North Dakota in Mid-February? A bit of a drive, and a few more gray hairs guaranteed! With increased gas prices, less travel, and an unpredictable economic future, most of us are traveling less. Therefore, there’s no better time to start learning more about video chat options. What do you need to engage in a video chat?

A computer with a built-in or external webcam

Internet Access


Free video conferencing software such as Skype or Google Video

Choosing a WebCam

Let’s first begin by talking about webcam options. If you have a built in Web cam, you will see this very small device located above your computer screen. If you need to purchase a WebCam, there are a few things to consider.

Cost- Webcams can be purchased from around $25 to $300+. For the average user, in which the goal is to keep in touch with family and friends, you would be fine purchasing a less expensive Web Cam. In the past, Costco has sold WebCams in “pairs”, so that you can have one for your family along with getting grandparents set up with the other WebCam. I think this is a great option. So…keep your eyes peeled for this type of deal as well!

Resolution- When purchasing a webcam, you will want to pay attention to the resolution. Many webcams will have a video resolution of 640x480 pixels (also known as VGA). The higher the resolution options, the more expensive the camera.

Frames per second- Frames per second is the next feature to pay attention to when purchasing a webcam. The higher the frame rate, the less delay you will have in the transfer of your video chat. If you have a slow frame rate, the video will have the “robotic feeling”, with pauses and delays.

Most webcams have built in microphones. If you purchase a low end webcam, you may get a very cheap microphone that produces poor audio. You can also purchase an external microphone if needed, as these run about $10-20.

If you have an extremely slow Internet Connection (such as dial up), you may want to hold off on video conferencing. You do need decent internet speed to enjoy a pleasant video chat experience. A minimum of 512k internet speed is recommended.

Video Conferencing Software Options

Once you have an Internet Connection and a WebCam, you will need to decide which video chat application would work best for you. I would start by asking your friends and family if they are currently doing video chats, and which application they are running. Below you will find some popular video chat applications. All of the options listed below are free software downloads.



Skype has been around for several years, and they keep making great improvements to this software and interface. Skype’s 4.0 version is better than before. In most online reviews, Skype ranks very high AND is the most popular phone and video chat option. (PC and Mac compatible)



TokBox is another web-based video chat application for free video chat and video mail. Many users like TokBox because it can easily be integrated with other services such as Facebook or Meebo. (PC and Mac compatible)

Google Video Chat


Google Video Chat was released in November of 2008, so it’s relatively new. I’m an AVID Googler, so I was thrilled when this option became available. Google Video Chat is a part of Gmail, Google’s Email. So, in order to use Google Video Chat, you need to sign up for a Gmail account at www.gmail.com and then install the free plug-in for Google Video.

iChat (Mac)

iChat is the default instant messaging and video chat application that is included on a Mac OS X. Mac users love the iChat feature and if you have a Mac….I would recommend this as a great option!

Once you have a webcam, internet access, and the video chat application…you will be ready to enter the world of Video Chat. Keep in mind that the options for video conferencing will continue to change and improve, as this is becoming a major form of communication. Each of the applications listed above have excellent video tutorials and help resources to get you started. You can also go to the Simply Family website for additional resources relating to the 4 video chat applications listed above. Quite honestly, the best technical help you could get for video chat would be a teenager or young adult.

It is my hope that through video chat, your kids can share their live footage of their “first lost tooth”, a piano recital piece, or their ability to do 100 pogo-stick jumps in a row! SFM

Becky Berg lives in Billings with her husband and two boys ages 8&5. She develops and facilitates various courses in the areas of technology and education. For additional information please email becky@gmail.com.

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