Group Video Chat Showdown: Google Hangouts and AnyMeeting Come Out on Top

AV by AIM

AV by AIM makes it easy to invite your colleagues or friends to video chat.
Setup: AIM’s new AV service is the AOL subsidiary's latest move to stay relevant in the chat arena ever since Facebook and Gchat became dominant in instant messaging. And the company succeeds in delivering an incredibly simple and fun way to chat with up to four people.

Starting a group chat is a cinch: Just click a box promising that you’re older than 13, and AV takes you to a chat room. Once you’re there, the service generates a URL that you can share with other people. When other participants click the link, they also have to promise that they’re older than 13, and after you grant permission for AV to turn on your mic and camera, you’re right there, video chatting with your colleagues or friends.

Users with older Macs won’t like the requirement to install a version of Adobe Flash that works on Mac OS 10.6 or higher. But other than having the latest version of Flash running on your computer, AV involves no downloads, and you don’t have to register for the service or give AIM personal information.

The middle video broadcast froze, and it remained in the chat room even when Yolanda signed out and then back in.
Video interface and quality: The video for AV did not work as well as the other services we tested. At one point during the test, one video broadcast froze (although the sound was still available). The member of the group with a frozen video stream exited and then reentered the chat room, but one of the frozen video broadcasts remained, essentially showing three people in a chat room when we really had only two.

Besides those few video glitches though, the sound quality was great--and being able to invite friends to a chat room with two easy clicks was absolutely worth the occasionally botched video broadcasts.

Extra features: AV by AIM doesn't have many extra features, but that’s the point. You can text chat with the other group members, or take a screenshot of the video broadcasts, but AV is supposed to be a clean, bare-bones way of video chatting on the fly.

Bottom line: For short chats with up to four group members, or for chatting with people who aren’t willing to go through a whole lot of setup, AV is the most intuitive and easy-to-use multiperson video chat service out there. This service probably wouldn’t work well for interviews or business meetings; but if you want to do a quick huddle with non-tech-savvy members of your family, or pass some time with long-distance friends, this is a great service.

AnyMeeting

Setup: AnyMeeting is completely free, and allows six people to broadcast video at one time. Up to 200 people can view the meeting at once.

The service requires just one person to register with the site by providing an email address and username. After you verify your email address, clicking 'Start Webinar' allows you to email invites to people, as well as to send them a short message. Clicking the 'Start mic & cam' button on the bottom toolbar starts the videoconference.

AnyMeeting will give you a “preparation window” so you can fix your hair; then, when you click the 'I’m ready' button, you go to your chat room. The creator of the meeting can share screens (a function that requires a Java installation) or prohibit other participants from broadcasting video streams or sharing screens.

Video interface and quality: AnyMeeting is another service that might not work well for older-Mac users--like AV, it requires installation of Adobe Flash for Mac OS 10.6 or higher. But once you’re in the meeting, video chat is as crisp and accurate as in Google Hangouts or Skype.

About 10 minutes into our meeting, one of the video broadcasts I was running from a Windows laptop on a wireless connection stopped broadcasting to the other computers, even though the webcam on the broadcasting laptop was on, and everything appeared normal in that computer’s AnyMeeting window. In general, however, we had few problems with frozen broadcasts or blocky images. The voice quality was pretty good, and didn’t sound too tinny or garbled.

A banner ad sits on the right side of any videoconference you start in AnyMeeting, but it isn't as big or intrusive as Tinychat’s ads.

Extra features: Unlike AV by AIM, AnyMeeting is all about the extra features. You can share screens for presentations, and the service also gives you the option to set up conference-call information, so people who aren’t in front of a computer can participate (although anyone who wants to be heard on the conference call will also have to call in; the feature doesn’t connect to the video streams over the Web).

The creator of the conference can see a list of attendees, and attendees can click on icons that indicate their mood to the conference host in a nonintrusive way. Mood options include 'Go faster', 'Go slower', 'I Agree', and 'I Disagree' icons, which show up as feedback for the conference host next to the attendee’s name. Text chat and video and audio muting are also available.

Bottom line: This is a great service for business meetings or presentations, but it's a little too full-featured and formal for family-and-friends gatherings. A major plus is the fact that only the conference host has to sign up with AnyMeeting to start a chat room, and everyone else can enter the room simply by providing the email address at which they received the invite.

The Best Choice for Your Group

So which service should you choose? It depends on what you want to do.

Google Hangouts and Skype are two of the most popular and most capable services out there--as long as everyone in your group has a Google or Skype account, and your group is relatively small. Hangouts is full featured and free; but if voice quality is important to you, Skype might be a better choice. These two options are perfect for small, regular meetings (such as weekly status meetings, or evening calls to your friends).

Look to Tinychat or AV by AIM if you’re pressed for time and you need to chat without too much setup. Participants enter with a simple click of a URL, and both services are completely free. Use Tinychat if you’re not concerned about voice quality and you want to collaborate on notes with someone face-to-face, but use AV if you’d rather just meet with relatives or friends without the hassle of getting everyone to sign up for a video chat service.

Finally, AnyMeeting offers a great way to host larger business meetings, since up to 200 people can view the video broadcasts but only the host has to register with the service provider. The extra functions enhance the videoconferencing features, but are probably overkill if you just want to talk to your family members around the country over the holidays.

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