Illustration by Brian Cairns

Video communication over the Web is not just for techno-geeks anymore. In fact, it’s quietly become one of the hottest Internet applications going-with 18 million webcam users and rising — thanks to the increased use of broadband and free instant-messaging software that supports video. Admittedly, there’s still a long way to go: True full-motion video has a frame rate of at least 24 frames per second, and most consumer services come up a little short. Power-users may want to opt for more capable Web-conferencing solutions, provided by third-party hosting companies for a fee. No matter what your needs are, there are now a bevy of options to choose from. Here’s our three-step guide.

STEP 1: Secure a Webcam

A basic webcam and its included software — yes, even the one that came with your PC — is good enough to create video greetings for grandma once in a while. The cheapest models cost around $25, with resolutions of around 300 by 200 pixels (about a quarter of your computer screen). If you plan to do a lot of video chatting, however, you’ll want a higher-resolution webcam, something in the range of 640 by 480 pixels. Expect to pay roughly $100, but you’ll get some useful videoediting software too. Security is another consideration, so make sure your cam offers password protection.

STEP 2: Choose Your Connection

You can jump on the video bandwagon with a dial-up modem, but we don’t recommend it — often voices don’t quite sync to lips and movements are rather jerky. Again, good enough for the occasional video e-mail but not much more. True full-motion video requires a DSL or cable modem — well worth the added cost if you’re serious about Internet video.

STEP 3: Pick the Right Software

You supply the webcam, and Yahoo Messenger 5.5 and MSN Messenger 5.0 (with XP) will supply a free real-time video connection. Downsides: You’re limited to one video chat at a time and neither can provide full-motion video — Yahoo tops out at 20 frames per second, MSN at 12 fps. Logitech’s IM Video Companion, a free download that works with MSN or AOL Instant Messenger, enables you to conduct a full-fledged video conference at 30 fps, though the frame rate slows proportionally to the number of viewers. If you’re running a home business and need stable, robust videoconferencing, go with third-party hosting. Companies like Web Ex also allow the online sharing of documents so everyone can work on the same project in real-time. Fees vary.