What works best for you may vary. Depending on your connection and location, and the same of those you’re chatting with, certain apps may work better than others. Plus, you’ll often be a little dependent on what your video chat partner is using. But, if you have a choice in the matter, this is what we recommend.
Platform: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (Web-Based)
- Video chat with individuals or a group of people, all for free
- Uses a unique system in which you can broadcast your hangout to Google+ friends, and anyone can join
- Create private hangouts and invite individual people or groups
- Toggle echo cancellation on or off
- Focus on the currently talking person in group video chats
- Watch YouTube videos with your video chat partners
- Name your hangouts (Try “Hangouts with Extras” at the prompt)
- Collaborate on notes, sketchpad, and Google Docs while chatting (Try “Hangouts with Extras” at the prompt)
- Share your screen with your video chat partners (Try “Hangouts with Extras” at the prompt)
Note that Google Hangouts requires a Google+ account to use.
Google Hangouts raises the bar for video chat. Most chat programs are fairly simple, two or multi-way video chats. Some include screen sharing and some more obscure clients may offer collaboration, but Hangouts adds a number of different features — like Google Docs collaboration, simultaneous YouTube watching, and the ability to focus on the currently talking individual — in a way that’s really easy to use. The video and call quality is also quite good and the idea of “hangouts” is definitely unique and makes video chat a more viable communication option to people who don’t want to “plan” their chats.
The only real downside to Hangouts is that it requires a Google+ account, which is a service not too many people are using (especially the people you might video chat with — like your grandparents). Choice of video chat client is, unfortunately, often governed by whatever the less tech-savvy partner is using, so you don’t always have a choice. That said, if you have a choice, Hangouts is our favourite option — especially if you want to do a group chat.
These days, most video chat applications are actually webapps that require small plugins to be installed, so few are platform-specific (which is great, especially on the not-so-popular Linux). Google Voice and Video — accessible from Gmail — is another great option. It doesn’t have as many cool features as Hangouts does, but it’s easy to use, has great video quality with the enhanced video chat plugin and it’s built right into Gmail, for those that don’t have a Google+ account.
Skype is also available on Linux, albeit in a slightly outdated, oft-neglected fashion. It’s constantly in beta and pretty glitchy, and while we definitely don’t prefer it to Google’s offerings, you’ll probably still have to keep a copy on your system because it’s what grandma wants to use. If nothing else, it’s got some nice phone calling features built-in.
Lastly, if you’re chatting on a regular old IM protocol — like Jabber or AIM — you can use one of Linux’s many great IM clients to get the job done. Most of them support video chat, including Kopete, Pidgin, and Empathy and you don’t have to run any extra installations or start up other programs to get chatting.
Those aren’t your only choices on Linux, but they are probably the best — and most widely used — so they’re the best place to start if you’re looking to have a video chat.
Lifehacker’s App Directory is a new and growing directory of recommendations for the best applications and tools in a number of given categories.