November 12, 2011, 7:56 AM — Everyone wants to be in on the conversation, but sometimes distance can make in-person meetings hard. We tested five multiperson video chat services--Google Hangouts, Skype Premium, Tinychat, AV by AIM, and AnyMeeting--to find the best place to conduct a group meeting online.
A lot of variables can affect the performance of a video chat service, from the available bandwidth to the quality of the participants’ webcams. In our lab tests, we set up five computers to video chat with one another: two desktop PCs, two Windows laptops, and a MacBook. We provided ethernet connections for the desktops and wireless Internet connections for the laptops. We also looked at how easy it was to set up and use each service, and considered whether each service had any extra features (such as text chat or video silencing) to enhance video chat.
Here’s what we found.
Setup: To use Google Hangouts you need a Google account (with a Google+ profile). You also have to install a browser plug-in, which works with Windows XP or higher, Mac OS X 10.5 or higher, or Linux. You can start a hangout from your Google+ page by clicking a button on the right side of the screen that says 'Start a Hangout!' This action takes you to a test page, where Google starts your webcam and microphone, but no one else can see your video broadcast.
In the test page is a box that allows you to choose which “circles” (or groups of friends) to inform about your hangout. Once you start the hangout, everyone in those circles will be able to see that, and they can join your hangout if they want.
When you’re ready, click the 'Hang out' button from the test page to go to the video chat room. You can invite more people by typing their Gmail addresses in the bar on the left side.
You can invite up to ten people to video chat.
Video interface and quality: While you’re in a hangout, whoever has the dominant voice will enter the large main video window, and all the other video broadcasts will appear in smaller video stream windows at the bottom. This arrangement, of course, assumes that every hangout will remain civil. If two people speak at the same time, with nearly equal tone and volume, Google Hangouts still chooses one to be front and center in the chat. Regardless, members of the hangout can manually adjust the layout by clicking on any of the smaller video broadcasts to see that stream in the largest window instead.