If you need a little face time with friends and family that live far away, firing up a video chat has never been easier. These days you don't even need to install an app or download a heavy client — many services let you open a browser and start chatting within seconds, no matter where you are in the world. This week we're going to look at five services that give you the best, fastest and most hassle-free video chatting experience.
Photo by Alan Levine.
When it Google Hangouts was introduced back in 2011, we praised it as one of the most seamless, easy-to-use video chat services we'd ever seen. That's still true: If you have a Google account, you can use Hangouts, and while it was initially only a part of Google+ (and remains an integral part of that service), Hangouts is available as a stand-alone Android app and iOS app and accessible from inside Gmail. You'll need a browser plugin for Hangouts to work, but that's it — no desktop installation, no client you have to run at startup, and no additional accounts.
Inviting other people to hang out is as easy as emailing them, and if they have Google accounts as well, it's even easier. Add in the fact that Google Hangouts lets you share your desktop, has built-in apps for drawing, collaboration and other features, supports screen sharing> and is a great online meeting service, and you have a powerhouse tool. Impressive for something that's just over two years old.
Facebook Video Chat launched in 2011 as a simple and easy way to stay in touch with the friends you already have on a social network you already use. It requires a tiny browser plugin to work, and while it doesn't offer the battery of tools that some of the other services discussed here offer, it does have the big advantage a massive built-in friends list that you don't have to re-add or invite to a service in order to video chat with you. Since it's powered on the back end by Skype, Facebook didn't have to reinvent the wheel. Depending on who you ask, that's a good or a bad thing, but many readers find Facebook Video Chat offers smooth video and crisp audio. Being powered by Skype also means that Skype desktop users can video chat with Facebook users, share their screens with them, and enable full HD calling if you have an HD webcam attached to your computer.
Strictly, AnyMeeting is more of a videoconferencing service than a video chat service, but it fills the role well enough to score a place on the list. It's lightweight, and only requires a browser plugin to work. The basic version is free but ad-supported, and you'll see occasional nagging to suggest a upgrade to the $US18/month "Pro 25" account or the $US78/month "Pro 200" account. Pro accounts remove the ads, bump up the number of people you can have in a videoconference simultaneously (to 25 and 200 respectively), and add the option to record your meetings and web conferences for future playback. While Google Hangouts can go "On Air" on YouTube, you're still limited to 10 active participants and 100 people in a group Hangout (if you're broadcasting, more people can watch). With AnyMeeting, even free accounts can bring 200 people to the party (you just can't record your meeting). Screen sharing, presentation uploading, YouTube video sharing, and a custom URL for your account and all of your meetings are some of the other features the service offers. You can check out the plans here.
If the other services discussed here seem overburdened with features, and all you really want is a hassle-free way to video chat with a loved one — perhaps a technologically-challenged loved one — Meetings.io may be perfect for you. We've highlighted the service before, and praised it for offering no-signup-required, no-plugin-or-install-required, easy-to-access one-click video chats, and the service has only improved better since then. While you can log in and create an account if you wish, the real beauty of Meetings.io is that you don't have to get people all using the same service or signed in to Google or Facebook for it to work. Click a button, start a meeting, send everyone the link via email or SMS, and when they click they're dropped right into the discussion. Chat organisers can approve participants as they see fit, and share video, audio and notes with other people in the chat. All you need is Flash for the service to work. It's not the most feature-rich or robust of the services in the roundup, but it's definitely one of the simplest.
TinyChat is part free videochat service and part social network. There's a massive, thriving community of people all over the world using TinyChat's free chat rooms and video broadcasting services. Starting a chat couldn't be easier — just click the button at the top of the page for an instant chat room. TinyChat doesn't require you download and install anything — it uses Flash to access your camera and microphone. When you do start a chat, you're prompted to share it on Facebook or your other social networks. If you opt to sign up for a TinyChat account, you can add friends, connect with other people or link with your social networks. Upgrade to Pro for $US10/month or $US85/year to strip out the ads, add camera filters and effects, enable higher quality video, and get your broadcasts (if they're public) bumped up in the global directory. TinyChat is a tough sell — it can be a powerful tool and it's a huge network, but it does a lot of nagging for you to share and annoy your friends on Facebook, and some of the content can be questionable too. Your mileage may vary.
This week's honourable mention goes to Gruveo, a newcomer to the anonymous video chat scene which launched just a few weeks ago. Gruveo promises encrypted, totally anonymous video chats without the need for sign-ups, plugin installs, or any personal details. You and your friend agree on a number that will identify your chat room, visit the site, type in the number, and you're instantly connected. It has its limitations — there's no screen sharing or document sharing, and you can only chat with one person at a time, but its angle is anonymity and privacy, not a checklist of features. It's fast, easy and free.
Have something to say about one of the contenders? Want to make the case for your personal favourite, even if it wasn't included in the list? Tell us how you handle video chat in the comments.