Video conferences are a fresh, high-tech way for businesses and individuals to communicate with multiple contacts face-to-face, making conferences more personal, intimate and engaging. They're also eco-friendly, using broadband internet or high-speed mobile networks to talk and collaborate instead of getting participants together in person, which can be fuel-intensive. But how do you choose video conferencing software?
These 8 video conferencing software options range from simple web-based video chat with your social network contacts to dynamic, complex software for up to 100 participants.
Video conferencing software for casual users
Don't need a lot of bells and whistles? These options are great for individuals, organizations and informal business use: Facebook video chat, Google+ video chat, Skype and Apple's FaceTime. These solutions don't offer the extra tools that professionals and businesses are likely to need, but because they're so popular, connecting with contacts is quick and easy. All require a high-speed internet connection; some are web-based while others are downloadable software.
Casual video chatters have two easy new tools from social networking giants Facebook and Google at their fingertips. Facebook has integrated Skype video chat into its interface, allowing users to talk face-to-face without ever leaving their Facebook page. Group chat is available as well, so you can talk to multiple people at the same time. And with the launch of Google+, the tech company's answer to Facebook, such quick and easy options have multiplied. Google+ lets you divide your contacts into 'circles', so that you can define a list of business contacts. Not only is this web-based solution totally free, but it features group video conferencing. Just as Facebook lets users see when their friends are online and available for chat, Google+ has a feature called 'Hangout' that can accommodate up to 10 people at once in on-the-fly conferences.
FaceTime lets users of Apple products like Mac computers, iPhones, iPads and iPods participate in video calls over WiFi. This means that no matter where your contacts are and what kind of device they're using, as long as it's made by Apple, they can connect with you in a video conference. It's just a 99 cent download from the Apple store.
Of course, the top web conferencing software for personal video chat is still Skype, a VoiP (Voice over IP) firm now owned by Microsoft. Skype audio and voice calling have now been integrated into Facebook, but the free stand-alone software is still a good option for face-to-face video chat. Users simply download the program and use a webcam to make video calls with up to 10 participants. People who don't have Skype or are on the go can join the conference on their mobile phones, and though they won't be able to see or share video, they can participate via voice call.
Robust professional software for businesses
Businesses and professionals will want video conferencing software that offer advanced collaborative features such as whiteboards, application sharing and file hosting. For small businesses and large corporations alike, these four solutions recommended by PCMag do it all: Adobe Connect, Cisco WebEx Meeting Center, Fuze Meeting Pro and Citrix GoToMeeting.
Adobe Connect is just about as robust as web conferencing software gets. Highly customizable with a dynamic Flash interface, Adobe Connect lets up to 100 participants communicate in video conferences and share content like files, video and desktops. It's compatible with most major platforms including Windows and Mac, can be used on mobile devices and costs $55 per month.
Cisco WebEx Meeting Center may be one of the oldest video conferencing solutions available, but it's still highly competitive, kept up-to-date with frequent improvements. For $49 a month, users can share screens, videos and up to six videoconferencing feeds; mobile support is another valuable bonus.
Fuze Meeting Pro has all the standard functions of conferencing programs, but adds the ability to host meetings from an iPad. It integrates Skype for easy audio conferences, dials in late participants and supports up to 10 simultaneous camera feeds for $69 a month.
Citrix GoToMeeting may just be the simplest of all four, prioritizing ease of use rather than a lot of extra features. It takes just one click to start a meeting, and participants in audio conferences can join by Skype or using a toll-free number. GoToMeeting costs $49 per month for up to 15 users.
PGi offers its own video conferencing solution in iMeet. The service costs $69 a month and supports up to 15 users meeting at the same time. Users can upload and download files, share links and view slide presentations.
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Photos: Allan Henderson/Flickr; Fuze Meeting Blog
Editor's note: PGi is a Mother Nature Network sponsor.