[an error occurred while processing this directive]I don't usually put on lipstick before making a phone call, but this time was different. I was placing my first video phone call over the Internet. Although video chatting online has been possible for years, it hasn't been very practical. That's because most people used dial-up modems, which don't have enough bandwidth to transmit video well. But now that more than a third of all Internet users have DSL or cable-modem connections, online video quality is finally up to snuff, if not exactly Emmy worthy. There's also a low-cost program that makes video chatting simpler than ever.
Before you get started, you'll need to invest in a webcam and a headset. I used the Logitech QuickCam Orbit camera ($130), which automatically follows your face as you move, but basic models start at $25. Headsets with built-in speakers and microphones start at around $15.
Next you'll need the right software. While Yahoo and MSN offer free video chatting through their instant-messaging programs, their video features feel like afterthoughts. Instead of launching video immediately, their programs first make you launch a text chat and then add audio and video.
For just $5 a month, a new program from SightSpeed in Berkeley, California, is a better option. Just click on the name of the person you want to chat with, and SightSpeed Video Messenger sends a message inviting him or her to chat. As soon as the recipient clicks O.K., a Post-it-size video window appears onscreen, and you can start talking. A picture-in-a-picture option lets you see your own image in a smaller window. In my tests over a DSL connection, the video was a little blurry but good enough to see expression on the other person's face.
A downside to video chat is that it sometimes reveals too much. I couldn't help noticing that my testing partner, Maryanne, looked bored and distracted while we chatted with each other. (O.K., so maybe I tend to babble.) And I wasn't thrilled with how I looked on the webcam either. I quickly discovered that video chatting involves a new kind of etiquette. You have to smile and give your webcam lots of eye contact. Before starting, it's also good to check the mirror to make sure you like how you look. And what if you need a bit of privacy during the chat? Hit the pause button to freeze your video image, and then mute the microphone. If you're quick, that will buy you enough time to fix your lipstick.