Mobile video chat is more of a practical reality today than ever before, now that just about every new device sports a front-facing camera and a blisteringly fast Internet connection. So if you want to try out face-to-face conversation with friends or co-workers located elsewhere in the world, what's the best way? After examining six popular video chat apps running on Android OS, here's our take on which ones work well and which ones you'd better leave on the shelf.
The apps we're looking at here include Skype, Fring, ooVoo, Tango, Qik and Paltalk, All of these apps are available across across multiple mobile and/or desktop platforms. For the purposes of this article, though, we tested the Android OS app on a couple of Android devices: specifically, a Samsung Stratosphere smartphone and -- except for Qik -- a Motorola XOOM tablet. (As you'll see below, Qik doesn't support the XOOM.)
Skype hardly seems to need any introduction here, since it's one of the most famous and widely used communications apps on the Internet. In addition to video chat, voice chat, and instant messaging (IM), Skype supports VoIP calling to outside numbers starting at 2.3 cents per minute. So it's fairly comprehensive.
With almost 700 million registered users, and client software for every major operating system, Skype is also theoretically the most broadly compatible of the video chat options out there. Its touted compability doesn't stop at OSes. Skype is rated to work with every Android device listed on my Google Play/Android Market account, including review units still listed there which I can't delete. Here are some examples: the Samsung Galaxy Player 5, HTC Status, and Viewsonic G-Tablet.
I can't speak to Skype's actual video chat performance across all supported platforms, but it behaved flawlessly on my Stratosphere phone and XOOM tablet. I also found the Android app quite easy to use.
Of course, no app or service is without some negatives. Ironically, one of Skype's is its own ubiquity. When you start a new account, you might find it difficult to come up with a unique username, even if you're just attempting to use your own real name.
Next up is Fring, which tries to be a low-rent version of Skype. Much like its rival, Fring also does video chat, IM, voice calls, and VoIP to outside numbers. However, Fring way undercuts Skype on costs, offering rates of just 1.1 cents per minute on calls to the U.S., less than half of Skype's price.
Beyond that, Fring is one of the few video chat apps available for Nokia's old Symbian-based phones. Unlike Skype, though, Fring is a purely mobile scene with no desktop/laptop PC client, meaning that most people won't be able to use the service across all of their devices.
Although Fring does try, and it succeeds in some ways, it's held back by a user interface that's less than impressive. Many of the options need to be accessed through the Settings menu. Moreover, most of the app's VoIP options are actually just a link to a page on the Fring web site, forcing awkward navigation for accomplishing tasks like adding credit or finding out per minute rates.
If you never needed to manage your minutes -- and you never needed to use the service when you're not on the go -- Fring would be more viable. But since people need to do these things, the company would be better off putting a little more work into its software before going toe-to-toe with Skype.
Despite its oddly punctuated name, ooVoo acquits itself quite well as the next best alternative to Skype. The service is available for all major platforms -- including Microsoft Windows PCs, Android, and Apple's OS X and iOS -- and it offers mostly the same features as Skype. In other words, text messaging, voice calls, video calls, and VoIP are all there.
The ooVoo service doesn't offer calling to as many countries as Skype does, but its VoIP rates for those it does cover are pretty low, running at 1.8 cents a minute to the U.S. and Canada, for example.
One of ooVoo's real selling points, however, is its group video calling option. While Skype offers this only with premium service, at rates of $10 monthly or $60 yearly, ooVoo provides group video for up to six people free of charge.
(Of course, ooVoo also has its own premium service, but upselling is generally the name of the game.)
Part 2 of this article offers reviews of three more video chat apps, and picks the best of these options.
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