Give Your Chats a Personal Touch With Free Videoconferencing

Share Documents and Desktops

In a videoconference, you could aim a camera at a whiteboard to show off written meeting notes, but you can just as easily pass around digital files instead. In most chat clients, you can drag a file to the chat window to send it, or right-click a contact's name and choose the option to send a file.

Desktop sharing takes collaboration further, permitting a remote person to view or control a computer. Essentially, you set up a virtual network computing (VNC) connection. Such an arrangement works well for troubleshooting a parent's distant laptop, but it's also appropriate for showing a PowerPoint or Excel presentation to a group.

Unlike the consumer version of AIM, the pro version includes desktop-sharing features.
Desktop-sharing support varies greatly on different video and chat clients. For instance, it isn't available on the standard AIM client for PCs, but it is included in the more business-oriented AIM Pro. I like the pro version better than the consumer AIM anyway, because it's almost ad-free. Just right-click an AIM Pro buddy, and choose New Desktop Share. Click Continue, and the remote computer can see your desktop. (Bear in mind that your buddy will also need to be running AIM Pro to receive your file.)

Apple's Mac OS X 10.5 lets two iChat users share screens easily while they chat.
On a Mac with OS X 10.5 and iChat, click a buddy, and then click the icon in the bottom right to offer your screen to the remote contact or to ask to control their computer. When you're in control, the remote computer replaces your main screen, but a small representation of your own system lets you toggle between the views. Click the X button to end the remote-control session.

Google Docs is another collaboration favorite that works independently of your videoconferencing software. You run your chat software as you normally would, and log in to this service at the same time. Open one of your documents, and click the Share tab on the right. You can then invite others to collaborate or to view the document, and they can alter it or look at it at the same time.

Use a Videophone, Skip the PC 

For permanent videoconference setups, consider avoiding the PC altogether. Dedicated videophone devices can be great for always-ready office installations. Unfortunately, such stand-alone devices tend to work only with their own kind, so usually you'll need to buy at least two of the same device if you want to talk to anyone. As fate would have it, though, some manufacturers now offer PC-based software that can connect Webcam users to dedicated videophones.

The D-Link i2eye DVC-2000 combines a video screen and a camera with a desktop phone.
D-Link offers a couple of business-oriented hardware products, the i2eye Broadband Videophone DVC-1000 and the i2eye Broadband Desktop Videophone DVC-2000. While the DVC-1000 is designed to sit atop a television set in a conference room, the DVC-2000 consists of a camera and a screen built into a desktop telephone.

The Packet8 Tango, on the other hand, is a device that connects to your PC, phone, and Internet source. It has a built-in wireless router, which helps free up some space in a home office. Regrettably, it can talk only to other Packet8 videophones.

Game consoles also make a great video-chatting platform, especially if you already have the game hardware. You'll just need to add a camera from Microsoft or Sony. The former offers the Xbox 360 Live Vision Camera, and the latter sells the PlayStation Eye for the PlayStation 3. As with most other non-PC video-chat products, these allow you to converse only with people who are using the same system.


Improve Network Performance for Videoconferencing

Videoconferencing requires a steady stream of data to maintain presentable video frame rates. A higher-speed connection can produce smoother frame rates and sharper details, but your network and firewalls might slow the process down. If you're apprehensive about adjusting security settings, skip these tips unless you're having connection problems.

If you're running a software firewall on your PC, it could be the cause of any video-chat connection problems you may experience. Here's how to allow your conferencing software to get onto the Internet in Windows Vista's built-in Firewall. (This process varies slightly with different security software.)

If Windows' firewall stops your videoconferencing software from reaching the Net, add an exception in the Firewall Settings control panel to let the program through.
In the Security control panel, open Windows Firewall. Click Allow a program through Windows Firewall. Click Continue and then select Add program. Choose the videoconferencing software, and click OK.

Your hardware router may also slow down or block traffic. In that situation, to improve access you'll want to identify which computer is using which protocol. Once you do, the router will know where to send video packets, which will prevent it from blocking your chat connections.

To do so, access your router's settings, likely through an administration Web page at its internal IP address, such as 192.168.1.1. Look for port-forwarding options, likely under an advanced-settings tab. If it's available, choose the name of your chat or videoconference software, and enter the local IP address of that computer into the appropriate field in your router's interface.

If you don't see a preset option for your chat software, manually enter, alongside that IP address, the port numbers that the software uses. Those numbers are frequently available in the software documentation. (This table offers lots of helpful details.)

Other networks on the same channel can also interfere with your wireless router. Use a program such as NetStumbler to see which channels are in use nearby, and pick a different option in your router's setup interface.

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