How To Get Better Quality Out Of Your Video Chats

So you’re all excited to hop on a video chat with grandma, but the quality is less than desirable. The video is choppy, the audio echoes and cuts out, and you can barely see the person on the other end. Before you flip that table, here are a few things you can tweak to make sure you’re getting the best quality possible.

Picture: Hypno_Bedhead

While it isn’t realistic to expect the same level of quality Skype shows off in their commercials, you can probably make your chats look better, sound better, and generally run more smoothly with a few simple tweaks at home. Note that for some of these, we’ll be using Skype as an example, since it’s the most popular video calling application. However, you can apply almost all of these tips to any video chat program. We’ll note where the tip is Skype-specific.

Note also that these tips go for both parties — in many caes, your video chat partner will have to implement these too if you want to see better video.

Simple Fixes

Make sure Skype is updated to the latest version. They improve the quality of video chats with each new version, so if you’re still running a copy from two years ago, you’re probably going to get the same crappy quality you had two years ago. This also goes for iChat and any other video chat programs. Web-based apps like Google Chat and Facebook Chat should stay up to date, though you might want to check and see if they have any updates or add-ons that improve the quality.

Wear headphones. If anyone is hearing echoes in the audio, it’s because the other party’s speakers are too loud. Wear headphones and this problem disappears instantly. Any headphones are fine; earbuds are nice since they don’t distract from your face. Note that this depends on a bit of communication between you and your friend: if you hear an echo, they need to wear headphones, but if they hear an echo, you need to wear headphones. Photo by Dan McKay.

Adjust your light. Again, this is a small tweak that can make a world of difference. Make sure you have a lamp or other light behind your monitor, pointing toward you, and that you don’t have too much light behind you. If you’re on a laptop, make sure the camera is at eye level and not pointing up at the ceiling lights, or down at the floor. Better lighting can mean the difference between talking to a real person and talking to a grainy silhouette.

Make sure your background is stationary. If you’re in a bustling coffee shop, or you have your family watching TV behind you, move somewhere else. The more motion is in your shot, the more work Skype will have to do and the choppier your video will get.

Don’t overload your internet with other tasks. If you’re downloading files, watching YouTube videos, or playing video games (or if someone else in your house is doing any of these things), that’s less bandwidth Skype gets for itself. Close any unnecessary programs, specifically those that are using your internet, and you might find that the call quality increases dramatically.

If you can, use wired Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is ok, but you’re much more likely to get lag and interference, which can make your video and audio choppy. Wired internet will give you a much smoother, more consistent experience.

More Advanced Fixes

Adjust your webcam’s video settings. Most webcams will let you tweak the brightness, contrast, microphone volume, and other things within their settings. If you’re using Skype, you can get to them quickly through Tools > Options > Video Settings. Drag the video settings window so its next to Skype’s Options window, so you can see your video preview. Adjust any brightness, exposure, colour, while balance and other sliders until your video looks better. This could take a bit of playing around, and it won’t help as much as, say, better lighting will, but if you’re short on real-world fixes this can help a bit.

Set up Quality of Service on your Router, if you have it. We’ve talked about setting up Quality of Service (QoS) before, so I won’t go too deeply into it here, but this should have the same effect as shutting down BitTorrent, online video games, and other programs that hog your bandwidth. Essentially, it ensures that when you’re video chatting, it takes bandwidth away from other applications and gives it to you. Again, it’s the same as shutting down those programs yourself, only with QoS your router will do it automatically. Note that not all routers have this setting, but if you don’t, you might still be able to use it by installing DD-WRT on your router.…

Increase Skype’s frames per second. This is a Skype-only workaround, and it’s a little “hacky”, but it can help if you’re experiencing really choppy video. Quit Skype if its open, and open up Windows Explorer. Tyle %appdata% into the address bar, and then navigate to Skype > [your Skype username] and open up config.xml in your favourite text editor. Find the line that starts with <Device>, and create a new line under it. On this line, type <Fps>25</Fps>, then save the file and quit. When you open up Skype, you should notice that your video is much smoother, though it will likely be blurrier. It isn’t a perfect fix, but if you’d rather have smooth video than high-resolution video, it’s a little hack that can help.

These tips should help get you started, and while buying a new webcam or subscribing to faster internet might help, you’ll want to try these easy, low-cost methods before going more extreme.

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