Instant messaging, video conferencing and Internet phone calls

Back in the Internet days of old, “chat” referred to geeky Internet Relay Chat, complete with its obscure commands and confusing channels, and free-for-all chat rooms, which were mainly used by frustrated teenagers to flirt with each other. Thankfully, things have moved on. Today, “chat” programs let you exchange real-time typed messages and also make voice and video calls. Such programs offer a fun way to communicate and can save you money, too.

If you’re already paying for broadband, you can make computer-to-computer calls – with or without video – to anywhere in the world for free. You can also call regular and mobile phones. This can be very useful if your home phone is often in use, effectively providing a second line without any standing charge. Potentially, it can also slash your phone bills, especially if you regularly call long distance.
To get started with messaging or calls between computers, you first need to download and install a “messenger” or “chat” program. There are various options out there, most of which offer calls to real phones in addition to typed messaging and voice and video calls between computers. If you don’t like the idea of using your computer to make calls, but you still want to save money on your phone bill, you might prefer to investigate an Internet-phone subscription service.

Skype, AIM, Yahoo!, Live…
One problem with the various chat programs is that they can’t all communicate with each other. So in order to chat with or call a particular person’s computer, you’ll need to have that person install the same or a compatible program. Here are the most popular choices.

AIM (PC & Mac) AIM, short for AOL Instant Messenger, offers messaging, voice and video calls to anyone using AIM, iChat AV and ICQ. There’s also an optional AIMPhoneLine service for calling and receiving calls from regular phones.

iChat AV (Mac only) iChat AV comes pre-installed on recent Macs and is available to buy for older Macs. You get free text, voice and video to other iChat users plus PC users running AOL messenger. The audio and video quality is great, and you can include up to ten people in a single conversation. However, you can’t call regular phones.

Skype (PC & Mac) Chat for free with other Skype users in messages, voice and video. Optional paid-for service (“SkypeOut”) for calls to regular phones.
Windows Live Messenger (PC only) Previously called MSN Messenger. Enables messaging, voice and video calls with anyone using Windows Live Messenger or Yahoo! Messenger. Optional “Live Call” service lets you call regular phones.
Yahoo! Messenger (PC & Mac) Messaging, voice and video calls with anyone using Windows Live Messenger or Yahoo! Messenger. Optional “Yahoo! Voice” service for calling regular phones. Others you may come across include ICQ, which is mainly focused on typed instant messaging, Jabber, which is a powerful, open-source system accessible via various programs but mainly used by techie types and companies.
If your friends are split across numerous systems, you can install more than one program. Or you could use a single program that can tap into various systems. There are many of these, but the most widely used is Trillian, which offers access to AIM, ICQ, MSN and Yahoo!.
Once you’ve got a messenger installed, you’ll need to set up a username and password. The exact method depends on the program, but it’s usually pretty self-explanatory (if you’re signing up for iChat on a Mac, you may need to sign up for a trial of the .Mac service, but use of the program will continue to be free even after the .Mac trial ends). Then you’re ready to log-in and add some contacts.
If your friends are already set up, email them and ask for their usernames – it will often be their email address, but not necessarily – which you can then add to your buddy list. Refer to Help within your program of choice for specific instructions. From that point on, it’s hard to go wrong. You’ll be able to see when your contacts are online, and vice versa, and start a typed, voice or video conversation at the touch of a button.

Exploring the options
Once you’ve got everything up and running, take the time to browse through the program’s Options (on a PC) or Preferences (on Macs). For example, you can choose whether you’d like the program to start up whenever you turn on your computer, when you connect to the Internet or simply when you ask it to. Also check out the options for appearing like you’re offline, busy, etc – sometimes you might want to be able to see which of your friends are available, but not necessarily want them all to be able to see you. However, if you simply have someone on your buddy list who you’d rather hide from permanently, add them to your Block List (look in Options or Preferences).

Calling from your computer: what you’ll need
To make decent-quality computer-to-computer voice calls, you’ll need an audio headset or handset. It is possible to get by with a regular microphone and speakers (including those built into most laptops), but these tend to lead to annoying feedback and echoes because the sound from the speakers get picked up by the microphone.

When one or preferably both parties are using a headset or handset, the audio quality tends to sound far better – more like a regular phone call. The least expensive option is a call-Centre style headset that will plug into your mic and speaker sockets. A neater-looking option is a USB handset (pictured, bottom; also see p.16), but these cost a little more and are best for desktop computers where they remain permanently plugged in (on a laptop you might have to mess around with settings each time you plug and unplug the handset). For video calls, you’ll also need a webcam. These come built in to some modern computers (including most Macs), but are also available to buy separately. They’re not expensive, though it’s worth avoiding the very cheapest as the quality varies widely. Read reviews or see the thing in action before buying. If you need a webcam for a Mac that doesn’t have one built-in, be sure to check its compatibility, as most are PC-only. Finally, for decent-quality voice or video calls, both parties will need broadband. Dial-up connections can be used, but the sound will be awful and the video will be more like an inch-wide slideshow, updating every second or so – worth it, perhaps, for a quick glimpse of a loved one at the other side of the world, but not as a real means of communication.

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