Phone calls are so 20th Century. The cool kids are all using video conferencing, and while I bet you’ve heard of it, you might have thought it was too complicated and required expensive hardware that you don’t have. The truth is quite different and odds are good that your existing PC – particularly all modern PC laptops – has all the equipment you need to be able to participate in video calls with friends and family around the world.
We’ll use the popular Internet-based telecom system Skype for our calls. If you’re like most people you might have heard of Skype but probably assumed it was just for voice calls. It started out that way but now supports very high quality video chatting and even works across computing platforms, so if you’re a PC fan and your sister’s an avowed Macintosh enthusiast, no problem!
WHY A VIDEO CALL?
Before we go further, you might be wondering why you’d want to make a video call rather than just a voice call. From my own experience, the biggest reason is because it’s just really fun! The further away someone is, the more delightful it is to be able to see them in person, and when I have video chats with relatives and colleagues in Australia, Germany or England, it’s amazing. Very space-age stuff.
A lot of calls are considerably more beneficial with a video component too, including if you’re on the road and want to check in on how your newborn is doing, or read a story to your child before they go to bed. Phone calls aren’t very engaging to children, but seeing you on the computer? It’s like being a TV star!
There’s another important category of video call users too: people in the military. My niece’s husband is on his third rotation in Afghanistan and for them it’s very important to have some face to face time, not just for their little ones, but for him to remember the wonderful family he has back home and for her to be reassured he’s made it through another day intact.
DO I HAVE THE HARDWARE I NEED?
As I said in the introduction, most modern PCs have all the hardware you need. My Dell laptop (as featured in the video) is typical with its built-in video camera and microphone. They’re not only all ready to go but when I launch Skype, it automatically sees them and uses them for the video and audio input devices. Couldn’t be much easier.
If your computer doesn’t have a video camera or mic, you can also acquire any one of a number of very good webcam packages for $50-$60. Heck, Microsoft’s Webcam Compatibility Center for Windows 7 lists 410 compatible Webcams. Plenty of choices!
The other hardware I suggest you look into is lighting: having illumination on your face from a light source behind your computer screen means that the image you are sending to others will be much more pleasant and attractive, and that’s all good. This doesn’t mean you need some sort of studio lighting at all, but even just rearranging your floor lamps or positioning yourself so that there isn’t a light source like a window behind your head is important!
Once you have the hardware set up, the next step is to go to Skype and grab the very latest version of their constantly-improving software. It’ll download and install in just a minute or two for most Internet users. Skype has a premium version, but for our uses, the regular free version works great.
When you’re ready to go, you’ll need a Skype account of your own and you’ll need to know the other person’s Skype ID. You can, of course, have them initiate the call by just sending them your Skype ID, but it’s easy to add them to your Contact lists too…
In Skype, simply click on the “New” button and choose “New Contact”. You’ll see this:
Enter their account name and you’ll be ready to go. Well, not quite. Let’s have a peek at your settings first. Choose “”Options…” from the “Tools” menu and you’ll see quite a few different settings you can tweak. The most important two are audio and video settings.
Start with audio. It’ll look like this:
Make sure it’s using your microphone and speakers by talking to your computer. The green bar under the microphone option should show green to give you feedback, as you can see I have displayed above.
Second step is to click on “Video settings” and you’ll hopefully see yourself!
As you can see, I’m cunningly demonstrating what happens if you have insufficient lighting, particularly insufficient lighting on your face. It’s dark. In this settings mode, however, it’s perfect for you to experiment with lighting and moving your lights (or computer) around to get a better image. Easily done, and once it looks good, you’re ready to proceed.
MAKING A VIDEO CALL
Once you have things set up properly and are happy with your video lighting, etc., go to your Contacts and right click on your friend or family member’s name:
As you can see, there are a bunch of options, most importantly “Video Call”. Choose that, and if they’re also online and connected to Skype at the same time, you’ll hear the audio of a phone ringing and they’ll have a window pop-up saying that you’re requesting a video call.
If they accept the call, after a few seconds you’ll see a big window of them and a little thumbnail of yourself:
They see the opposite, a big version of you, a little version of them. and as you might suspect, you can just start chatting with your first video call. Oh, and don’t be surprised if they never seem to be looking at you. In fact, they are. They’re looking at the window that shows your video feed, not the camera on their computer. Short of having a video camera embedded in the middle of the screen, this is inevitable!
That’s all there is to it. Have fun trying out video calls with your friends and family!
Dave Taylor writes the popular Ask Dave Taylor tech support blog and has been fiddling with computers and gadgets for more years than he’s willing to admit. You have questions? He’s happy to hear from you on his site or you can join his fan club at facebook.com/askdavetaylor.
Editor Note: Intel has sponsored this video series.