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VoIP Video Software

Adding video to your VoIP calling is not only simple and easy, but - apart from a $30 webcam - it is also free.

Here we discuss the most common software programs.


Part 7 of a 8 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five  Six  Seven  Eight



Now we're in the 21st century, it is finally time for video as well as voice calling to be a practical amenity for us all.

If you have broadband internet, you can use it both for voice calling and also for video calling too, using any one of these various free programs listed below (or many other programs that are sold for only small amounts of money).

Here's how to choose the best program for you.

Intro the Dream of the Picture Phone

Picture phones, offering combined voice and video transmission - have been talked about, and occasionally offered, for decades, with the first appearance probably dating back to the New York World's Fair in 1964.  But the technology has been too expensive, systems usually incompatible with each other, and the quality too poor to encourage broad acceptance.  Without a ruling standard and a growth towards general use, none of the various products have ever achieved any significant sales or success.

Free Video Software

Now for the good news.  The software you'll want to use is available, for free, and may even be on your computer already.

There are two reasons why free software is important.  The obvious reason :  It saves you money.  The other reason :  Whoever you're sharing video with will need a copy of the software, too.  Free software encourages your friends to become video friendly.

More good news :  Instant messaging, VoIP, and video over Internet have all become an area of intense competition between some of the biggest internet companies - Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo and Google, for example.  All these companies are investing heavily in improving their products, and so you can expect the products listed below to rapidly evolve and improve.

We'll update these reviews as necessary to reflect the updates and upgrades.

Skype (tested version, Apr 08)

Skype's video is clearly the best of all the video programs, and gives a consistently better quality image than the other programs, narrowly edging out Microsoft Messenger.

A new innovation, released in 2008, is support for high quality video - 640x480 resolution and 30 frames per second.  This requires your PC to have a dual core processor, and only works with a small range of webcams at this stage, but if you and the person you're linked to can support this higher quality video, you'll be amazed at its quality.

Skype's regular quality video is as good as any of the other programs, and its high quality video is clearly the best of all the products.

Skype does not support video conferencing, just one on one video.

Skype is our recommended product for one-to-one video.  You can also see our Skype audio review for more information about this largely free service.

You can download a free copy of Skype here.

Microsoft Messenger (tested version 7.5, Sep 05)

Microsoft's Messenger program is a fully featured Instant Messaging program and is widely used, particularly among business rather than recreational computer users.  Most Windows based computers have Messenger pre-loaded as part of the various programs included in Windows.

Microsoft has enhancing their product substantially over the last few years, and what had formerly been no more than a simple chat program now allows for voice and video sharing, plus other nice things such as direct file transfers and whiteboarding.

A very nice feature is the 'remote assistance' feature that allows another user to see your computer's desktop, and even potentially to control it remotely.

The latest version of MS Messenger is 7.5, and this was released in September 05.  It offers tangibly better video than the previous version.

The basic text based chat program allows for multiple users in a conference, but the audio and video is limited to one-to-one conversations only.

Audio quality is excellent, and the video quality is the best of the four programs tested.

The software allows for three different image sizes to be viewed, but it does not seem to affect the resolution of the image being sent or received, merely the size on the screen.

If you don't have a copy of Messenger on your computer, or if your copy is not up to date, you can download the latest version here.

Microsoft NetMeeting (tested version 3.01, Sep 05)

NetMeeting is an obsolete and now almost extinct product (it can be found here if you wish to get a copy or to update an old copy).

NetMeeting was formerly the main Microsoft audio/video conferencing product, but it had an obsolete and somewhat problematic architecture that didn't scale well, and the NetMeeting servers became infested with X-rated content and users, making it inappropriate for normal business and family use - women in particular could never be sure when a stranger wouldn't suddenly appear on their screen in a rather inappropriate form of (un)dress and displaying a rather inappropriate form of behavior!

There is no longer any reason to use NetMeeting.  Messenger now has all the features that NetMeeting has, and so has replaced it for one-ton-one uses.

Microsoft's Live Meeting product takes the high end part of the multi-user conferencing market (Live Meeting is not free).

Yahoo Messenger with Voice (tested version 8.1, Apr 08)

Yahoo Messenger is not as fully featured as Messenger, but it does allow for multiple participant voice and video conferencing of sorts.

As a one-to-one voice and video program, it gave good audio and acceptably good video.  It offers two video modes, a regular mode (small resolution and low frame rate) and a super mode that offers larger resolution and faster frame rates, giving a very good video picture.

Super mode appears to require a user to have a moderately high speed data line.  If you're on dialup or a congested line, super mode will not be offered as an option.

Yahoo Messenger allows for two different sizes of image to be sent.

Super mode gave the third best video quality of the products tested, with MS Messenger being a little better than Yahoo Messenger and Skype being the best.  Regular mode however can be inferior to all the other products.

Regular mode would also sometimes freeze or close down entirely for no apparent reason.  It is unreliable and not completely satisfactory.

When creating a conference with more than one other person, the program disappointed profoundly.

When conferencing, an earlier version we tested suffered from bizarre logic bugs and shortcomings, and was unreliable and unstable.  Sounds you'd expect to come out of the computer's speakers (like ring tones) came out of the headphones (so you wouldn't hear them unless you had your headphones on) but some other sounds (like voices in a conference) came out of the computer speakers rather than the headphones.  We could not find a configuration option to change these assignments.

Sometimes we'd lose sound entirely.  And the sound quality, in a conference, was very much poorer than when one-to-one.

The video also seemed to suffer, and their super mode is only available if all users are able to receive super mode.

The multi-user video was inelegantly handled.  It was possible, but not convenient, to have multiple video windows open simultaneously.

The program can be downloaded here.

AOL Instant Messenger (tested version 5.9, Sep 05)

AIM - AOL Instant Messenger - is a very popular recreational feature of the AOL service, and can also be used by non-AOL members (download here).

The program is moderately well featured, although its recreational roots are clearly evident - while it has plenty of emoticons, it doesn't support whiteboarding or computer/program sharing.

Voice quality is okay, but video quality is disappointing.  The image size is small and there seems no way to increase it.

There is also a 'direct connect' option but invoking this caused the video feed to disappear, and the only solution seemed to be a complete computer reboot.

AIM does not support multiple user video conferencing.  We do not recommend AIM unless you spend most of your time interacting with AOL users who already have AIM on their computers.

vSkype (tested Beta version (1.2?), Sep 05)

The very popular Skype VoIP program formerly did not support video, although it now (2007) does.

However, there is an add-on program that integrates itself into the main Skype program and provides video capabilities.  This program is vSkype (similar name but unrelated company to Skype), and at least at present, their video program is free.

It is hard to see what the revenue opportunities are for a free video service, and we expect that as the product develops, it will either transition to a regular for sale product and/or will be festooned with advertising.

vSkype adds both single user and multi-user video capabilities, and also allows for other people to view programs running on your computer.  This program promises much, but delivers little.

The video quality is poor, and not nearly as good as Yahoo's super mode or MS Messenger.  There seemed to be no way to adjust video size or other settings.

The audio quality, when conferencing through vSkype, dropped drastically and was not nearly as good as one-to-one or the normal voice-only conferencing through regular Skype.  It seemed to only allow one direction talking (like a walkie-talkie radio) rather than dual direction talking (like a telephone); ie, was simplex rather than duplex.

vSkype has a very elegant way of managing multiple video streams on your desktop and in theory could be by far the best suited for video conferencing (as opposed to one-to-one video calls).  But the terrible quality of both sound and video makes this program not yet ready for prime time.

Starting a video call through vSkype is a cumbersome process.  We suspect that calls are routed through a central server, which might explain the delays and the overall quality constraints.

This software is still going through its pre-release development, and we understand that the next Beta release, due out very shortly, will have further improvements to the quality of the video.

vSkype is our recommended product for multi-user video conferencing, but in such a case, you'd want to use a different audio service.

iVisit (tested version 3.4.3, Sep 05)

This program is available in both freeware and commercial versions.  The free version allows for up to eight people to join in a video conference via a chat room; and has limits the amount of time you can be connected to 60 minutes at a time, then you have to log out for 30 minutes before returning again.

These constraints are unlikely to impact on many people, but business users may possibly prefer the commercial version which costs a mere $39.95 and gives higher resolution (320x240 instead of 160x120), removes the time restrictions, and multi-user conferencing as well as chat.

The free version is fully featured and easy to use, and both audio and video are of good quality.  There are also excellent additional features, including desktop sharing and even Powerpoint presentation sharing.  It is also possible to record either the audio alone or both the audio and the video, and variously either save the recordings or send them to other users.  It is not possible to secretly record calls, though - the person being recorded is advised that the recording is about to commence and has the option to approve or deny the recording request.

The paid version allows better quality video.  If a paid user and a free user have a conversation together, the lower quality free video is used for both people.

The iVisit user interface is very rich with a lot of options and features, but it is also a bit more complicated to learn than that on the other programs.

iVisit also suffers from the same annoying problem that Yahoo Messenger does - when a new call rings in to your computer the ringing sound goes through your headset rather than the computer speakers.  This means if you don't have your headset on, you probably won't hear the call ringing.

For conference calling involving more than one other person, iVisit is the best current option.  It can be downloaded here.

Google Talk

Google Talk is a new Instant Messaging program, released in August 2005.

At present it has a very spartan interface, limited functionality, and while it supports both IM and voice, it has no video capability.

We include this program because we anticipate it will quickly develop and probably add video capabilities.  As soon as this happens, it is likely to become a serious contender, and we will update this section as/when the software is enhanced.

It can be downloaded here.

Mixing and Matching your Audio and Video Programs

Here's an invaluable tip.

You don't need to use the same program for audio as you use for video.  For example, by far the best audio program is Skype, but the best (one-to-one) video program is MS Messenger.

So do your audio calling in Skype, and if you want to add video to the conversation, you and the other person should start a video program separately.

Note that sometimes there are problems with this theory - if an IM program seems to use both video and audio simultaneously, then it won't allow you to mix and match programs.  But a program such as Yahoo Messenger (with video almost the equal of MS Messenger ) does allow for a video only link without tying up the voice service at the same time.

So, in any way possible, mix and match your personal voice and video favorites.

Too many programs makes too many problems

Resist the temptation to load every different piece of free software that comes along onto your computer.

Unless you use a camera sharing program (see below) you're likely to be causing no end of headaches because the different programs will each be fighting with each other for control of your webcam, and over-writing each other's settings.

It is much better to use only one video chat program and keep your computer configuration clean and simple.

Using a Camera with Multiple Programs Simultaneously

All the video programs seek to gain exclusive control of your webcam.  So if you're using one program's video service, you can't simultaneously start up a different video program and send video on that, too (never mind why you might want to do this - perhaps as a clumsy way of conferencing).

However, there is a program here that allows you to do exactly this - enabling multiple programs to share the one webcam at the same time.  This is sold for $20.  Another program, here, does the same thing and is free.

I've tried the $20 program and had reliability problems with it, so suggest you first try the free program.


Internet based video calling is now a convenient reality.  Some of the programs offer poor quality video, but the better programs, such as MS Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and iVisit, give amazingly good video quality.

Video can now offer a definite and tangible improvement on your ability to keep in touch and communicate with friends, family, and even business associates.

The software is usually free and easy to use.

Read more about video over your internet line

The previous part of this series tells you all you need to know about buying and setting up a webcam, and tuning it for best quality and performance.

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Originally published 9 Sep 2005, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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