With a few hours of time and a little D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) spirit, you can make some major improvements to the PCs and networks you use at home or for your small business. Sound good? Read on.
• Turn a PC Into an HD media server
PCs are great at collecting and organising media files, from digital camera photos to iTunes tracks to video downloads. But to get the most from your digital entertainment, you'll want to enjoy it on your living-room stereo system or big-screen HDTV. That's where media servers and player boxes come in: They provide the software and hardware interfaces you must have to access PC-based content directly from your TV screen.
• Media Center Software
The first step in sharing content painlessly is getting the right software. Our top choice for the job is Microsoft's competent and easy-to-use Windows Media Center, an HD-capable app included in Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate, as well as in Media Center Edition versions of XP. It plays back most media file types, including HD video and Windows DRM-protected content downloaded from online stores. It also streamsiInternet radio and web-based video, and works with many HDTV tuners so you can use your computer as a DVR.
Getting started with Media Center is simple. When you open it for the first time, it scours your hard drives for media files, arranges them into such categories as Music, Pictures & Videos, and TV & Movies, and then serves them up via a point-and-click interface. Depending on how many files you have, you can set up Windows Media Center in a matter of minutes just by clicking through a few screens. You don't need to do any organising ahead of time, though you can designate which folders will be searched for media files, and for this reason you may want to segregate public content from private material. The program can also access network storage drives--if you're in the market to purchase such a drive, look for a UPnP-enabled or "media storage" drive to make that process easier.
• The jump to the living room
Now comes the harder part: making the PC-to-TV connection, especially for HD video. To bridge that gap, Microsoft has developed a class of products called Media Center Extenders. Video travels from PC to Extender over a high-bandwidth ethernet or Wi-Fi connection, and then it goes from the Extender to the TV via special HDMI, DVI, or HD component cables. Thus far, however, the only Vista-compatible Extender with HD outputs is the Xbox 360 game console (US$300); more options are expected this fall.
To set up Media Center on the Xbox 360, go to the Xbox 360 Media Download Centerand select the download at the side of the page that corresponds to your Windows version. The Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote even has a dedicated Media Center button to make navigation easy. Be sure to hook up the Xbox 360 through the television's high-definition connectors for best effect.
• Alternatives to Media Center
If you don't have Media Center already and don't want to upgrade to Vista, all is not lost. Companies such as Buffalo, D-Link, and Netgear offer their own HD-capable media player boxes. We tested the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD ($400), which has both HD component and HDMI ports, as well as wired and wireless network connections. The Netgear device has PC software that, like Media Center, finds all the media files on your hard drive and delivers them to your TV in navigable categories. In addition to handling unprotected video, music, and picture files, the Netgear can play both protected iTunes music and Windows DRM content, something no other HD media player can do.
• Adding an HDTV tuner
If you also want to use your computer as a DVR to record and pause live TV, you can add an HDTV tuner to either a Media Center PC or the Netgear box. We tried the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick, a USB 2.0 device reminiscent of a thumb drive that comes with a portable antenna for picking up local digital and analog broadcasting; you can use it with digital cable/satellite boxes for HD content, too--though you'll take a quality hit, since it will hook up to your set-top box via an analog, not digital, connection. After installing the drivers, you can work within Windows Media Center or the Netgear Digital Entertainer to set up the channels, program guide, and recording options for the tuner.
Finally, note that you will need plenty of disk space for high-definition recording: Best-quality HD MPEG-2 video runs about 10GB per hour. And HD video streaming may require speeds of up to 25 megabits per second, so make sure you have a fast connection such as wired ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, or HomePlug AV powerline networking.
• Spruce up your vacation video
You can use Windows Movie Maker, which comes with XP and Vista, to turn your home video into something truly enjoyable to watch. To access the program in either XP or Vista, click Start, All Programs, Windows Movie Maker.
• Working with clips
When you import your video file into Movie Maker, the program will split it into multiple clips. Select the ones you don't want, and press <Delete>. To split a clip in two, pause it at the desired point and click the Split icon below and to the right of the playback window. Then rename the remaining clips by selecting each and pressing <F2>.
Drag the clips down to the Storyboard at the bottom of Movie Maker's window, and arrange them in the proper order. You can always drag the clips around the storyboard to change the order.
When you are done, click the Play icon near the top of the Storyboard section to watch the rough cut of your cinematic masterpiece.
Press <Ctrl>-T (or click on the Show Timeline button located just above the Storyboard) to change the storyboard into a timeline--a better tool for adding sound, trimming your clips, and generally making your edit presentable.
To add dissolves and transitions between the video clips, click View video transitions in the left pane under Edit Movie and drag the transition of your choice to the appropriate spot on the timeline or storyboard.
You can import additional audio content, such as narration or background music, the same way you import video; afterward, drag the audio files into the timeline to run parallel with the video. If you elect to have both narration and music, you'll want to control the volume of each so the appropriate track is clearer. Right-click either audio line, select Volume, and adjust as you see fit.
When you're done, you can export your video to a .wmv file or place it online, among other things. If you have XP Media Center, Vista Home Premium, or Vista Ultimate, you can burn it to DVD.
• Make your own web mashup
A web mashup collects services and functions such as maps, search engines, RSS feeds, music, and images from two or more Web sites and combines them to produce a new and (ideally) uniquely useful application.
A classic example is HousingMaps, which blends Craigslist's housing-for-rent listings and Google Maps to display the physical locations of housing that's available for rent.
Services from Amazon to Yahoo have made their features available for incorporation into new mashups via APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) at their Web sites. You can find and use everything from directory listings to video searches to GPS data to shopping carts. Unfortunately, combining this raw data into something new is extremely difficult for nonprogrammers. Luckily, software tools designed to simplify the process are just now beginning to crop up.
• Start with Yahoo's Pipes
One tool that's available now (several others are still in beta) to help nonprogrammers build mashups is Yahoo's Pipes. Even in Pipes, you're a lot better off if you have the mindset of a programmer, since building mashups from scratch there is somewhat challenging. But it still offers a fairly quick way to get your feet wet with mashups.
That's because at Pipes you'll find a ton of mashups that other people have already built and posted. Pipes allows you to open one of these mashups, clone it, and save it with no trouble at all. Beginning with an existing design, you can start tweaking it to make it your own.
We grabbed and cloned a popular and simple mashup called YouTunes, which finds YouTube videos for the top ten songs at iTunes. It accomplishes this by snagging a "Top Ten Songs" RSS feed from the iTunes store and then running a search at YouTube for all video titles that match the song titles listed there.
But you may not want to watch videos of the top ten songs; you may be more interested in, say, the videos for the top ten songs on the iTunes Alternative Charts. To customise this mashup accordingly, simply replace the existing iTunes RSS feed in the 'Fetch Feed' box (in Pipes' Edit view) with the "Alternative Top 10" RSS feed from the iTunes Store. You can get that feed (and many others) from the iTunes Store RSS Feed Generator. You then save your newly customised "pipe" and click the Run Pipe link at the top of the page. You'll see a nice, clean list of YouTube videos corresponding to the iTunes Alternative Top 10.
When you start to feel more comfortable with the concept, Pipes can walk you through the process of building a mashup from scratch. For more on using Pipes, see "Eight Great, Simple Ways to Hack the Web."
• Mashup editors coming soon
• Give your business a professional phone system
You no longer have to purchase or lease expensive telecom equipment to give your business a professional telephone service complete with such features as an "automatic attendant" and hold music. You can set up your own small-business PBX (Private Branch Exchange) using Web-based services that are available at a fraction of the cost of old hardware-based PBXs.
• Get VoIP plus PBX
MailStreet from Apptix offers you a simple but powerful way to beef up your business's phone services. It uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) to route calls, so you need to have a reliable broadband Internet connection. You can keep your existing phone number, provided that it's located in the United States.
To start, you sign up for a MailStreet Voice account. A Business Plan ($40 per month per line) covers unlimited incoming and outgoing calls in the United States and Canada (other countries incur extra per-minute charges). The plan includes other popular services such as voice mail and call transfer. A Premium Plan ($50 per month per line) adds features like hold music and permits integration with Microsoft Outlook, so you can manage your voice mail in the same app as your e-mail.
Since standard phones won't work with the MailStreet service, you must either use a softphone (a software-based telephone with a PC headset) or purchase a MailStreet-supported IP telephone ($165 and up).
I used the softphone, which is fairly easy to set up. I simply downloaded the free X-Lite 3.0 Softphone app from CounterPath and then quickly configured it, following MailStreet Voice's instruction guide.
For optimum sound quality with a softphone, I recommend using a good USB headset with a microphone, which provides better (digital) sound than an analog headset and starts at about $20.
To set up the call management features of MailStreet Voice, log in to the MailStreet Web site. Sorting through the vast array of options there will take you some time. For example, you'll see 17 different rules options just for handling incoming calls, based on things like calling number and time of day.
Your everyday interface to MailStreet is Call Manager, an application that you download from the MailStreet site. With Call Manager you can set your status (in office, out of office, busy, or unavailable) and decide whether to take a call or send it to voice mail. You can also transfer calls, place them on hold, initiate conference calls, or hang up.
• Use pro tools to manage your small network
As the de facto system administrator for your home or small-office network, you're the person that everyone turns to when PCs contract a virus, can't print, can't connect to the Wi-Fi net, or undergo other daily crises. Dealing with setup problems is bad enough, but what if you're also the person responsible for overall security and maintenance of your network? Or a parent needing to protect your children on the Internet? Things can get real complicated, real fast.
Actual "sysadmins" have professional software tools to keep tabs on their networks, but most of these utilities are too geeky for the average home or small-office user. By employing one or two of the following tools, however, you can address all of the key networking issues that home and small-office users face: security, connection and sharing, parental control, and general maintenance.
• One-click easy
Network Magic Premium ($30 for three PCs, $40 for five PCs), a truly miraculous utility, is the only one you'll need for most home and small-office networks. After you install it on each PC, it handles thorny tasks such as printer and folder sharing, security and network-usage monitoring, and wireless-connection management, all with one-click ease.
Parents and small-office overseers will appreciate the daily usage reports for each computer that show the amount of time spent using specific applications, the Internet Explorer browser history, and network traffic generated by time of day. Reports can't prevent inappropriate activity by kids or employees, such as excessive chat usage or visits to X-rated Web sites, but they can alert you that it's happening so you can take action.
For anyone with a mix of old and new systems, Network Magic also takes away the pain of having to perform the same task five different ways. The utility supports PCs using everything from Windows 98 SE to Vista, with the exception of NT. A beta version is available for Macs.
• Small-business step-up
The free network and IT management tool Spiceworks is more professionally oriented than Network Magic, making it perfect for small businesses that need to simplify asset management, keep track of software licenses, and monitor employee network usage. You'll need to gain a little networking and Windows management expertise, but Spiceworks provides excellent help files and an active user forum to help you along.
After a quick installation on an administrator computer, Spiceworks crawls your network, identifying and classifying devices. Unlike Network Magic, it needs no installation on other computers. Instead, it uses Windows' built-in network management instrumentation (WMI) protocol to provide media access control (MAC) addresses, software version numbers, installed patches, antivirus upgrade dates, and other data. Spiceworks can inventory the contents of Mac and Linux machines, too.
Spiceworks' troubleshooting features include the ability to compare the configurations of two computers to find out why one is working and the other isn't. You can also perform DNS mapping to get a clear picture of the devices on your network. Myriad reports and alerts help you keep tabs on almost-full hard drives and other potential or actual problems. Finally, the program's e-mail-based Help Desk, where employees can enter support requests, is a lifesaver for part-time administrators.
• Activity monitoring
While Network Magic and Spiceworks can alert you to suspicious activities, they can't prevent them from occurring in the first place. If you want to limit your employees' Internet activities or restrict your children from going to inappropriate chat rooms, you need a content-filtering utility. ContentWatch makes the NetNanny filtering tool for parents and the ContentProtect Professional tool for IT managers; both are extremely easy to install.
With either tool, you can block content in a broad list of categories; prevent access to chat programs, newsgroups, or peer-to-peer file-sharing services; limit usage by time of day or total time; and see all sites visited. Both products cost $40 per PC (with a three-seat minimum for ContentProtect) and work with Windows 2000, XP, and Vista.
• Run a 'guest' OS on your PC
It's hard to find the perfect operating system for your PC. Windows isn't the safest OS, but it probably runs all of your programs and games. Linux is much less vulnerable to the Internet's threats, but it doesn't natively support Windows applications.
Fortunately, modern PCs are powerful enough to run more than one operating system at the same time. Virtualisation software such as VMWare's VMWare Server or Microsoft's Virtual PC 2007, both of which are free, let you run guest operating systems in memory and disk spaces isolated from the host operating system. Not only does this arrangement allow you to benefit from the strengths of both operating systems, but you can also test risky features or programs on the guest OS while keeping your host system safe from harm.
• Installing VMWare
I opted to install VMWare Server under Windows Vista and then create a virtual machine running Ubuntu Linux 7.04. If you do the same, once Ubuntu is installed and running in a virtual machine, you'll be able to use some of the thousands of available (and free) applications that run under Linux, as well as take advantage of the Ubuntu VM to browse the Web and use other Internet resources more safely. After finishing your test drive, you might even consider replacing Windows with Ubuntu as your system's main OS.
Officially, VMWare Server is supported only under Server versions of Windows. But it runs under any Windows OS that has Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) installed, including Windows Vista--in fact, I performed the installation described below in Windows Vista Ultimate. Unlike Virtual PC 2007, VMWare also comes in a Linux version, which permits you to run dozens of Windows, Linux, and other OS versions from within a Linux host system.
Before downloading VMWare Server, click on the registration link on the same page and fill out the obligatory form to receive one or more serial numbers. Then download and install the software, and enter the serial numbers when prompted. Choose Start, All Programs, VMWare, VMWare Server, VMWare Server Console to launch the server, and click OK to create and run virtual machines on the local computer (VMWare can also run virtual machines stored on other computers on a network). Click New Virtual Machine and step through the wizard. If you're not sure how to answer when the wizard asks you how your virtual machine should connect to the network, stick with the default bridged networking option.
• Load an OS
Next, insert the installation disc of the operating system you intend to load, select the virtual machine you just created in the VMWare console's Inventory list, and click Start this virtual machine. If your system has multiple DVD or CD drives, you may have to experiment by inserting the disc into different drives until you find the one that VMWare chose to use with your virtual machine. If the VM finds no boot media in its default drive, it halts with an error--just click the Restart Guest button on the console's toolbar after switching the disc to a different drive. Once the VM finds the disc and boots from it, you'll be able to install the guest OS normally.
• Share your files and brain power, the Web way
A new wave of collaborative software has become available to help you connect and empower your social and employee groups. Though the genre is still in its adolescence, it's already showing signs of great things to come.
• Microsoft Groove 2007
Microsoft's Office applications, with their revision-tracking features, have garnered legions of fans. Now the company offers Groove 2007 ($229), a collaboration component designed to help coworkers trade both their Office files and their ideas. Groove allows a group of users to share a "workspace" in which they exchange files, discuss ideas forum-style, chat, track project issues, and handle other tasks, all within a single, common interface. Unfortunately, Groove provides little real integration with the rest of the Office suite: Though it enables users to share files created by the other components (Word, Excel), it does not permit them to edit those files together in the workspace. Users still can go offline and make separate, simultaneous edits in Office documents, but the various drafts must be reconciled later through Office's "compare documents" function. Still, Groove is a decent one-stop desktop product for a business.
• WebEx and Same-Page
Some business users might prefer a library-type system where documents are checked out and unavailable until they're returned, as you find in the online collaborative services of Same-Page and WebEx. Both Web sites are best known for their online meetings, where you can invite others to view your presentations, share your desktop windows, chat, and even pass control from participant to participant (or share control, via Same-Page). However, both services also offer forum-style discussions, a contact manager, polls, and other collaborative features. They are easy to understand and navigate, but like Groove they are a bit on the expensive side. WebEx Office costs $60 per month for five users; Same-Page eStudio 6 costs $50 for an unlimited number of users.
• Low-cost options
You'll sacrifice a little sophistication, but for collaboration on a strict or nonexistent budget, you have a surprising number of cheap and free options to choose from. Free online applications like Google Docs & Spreadsheets, ThinkFree, and Zoho all allow multiple users to work on the same documents at the same time (for more, see "Get to Your Data Anywhere and Anytime"). Most of the apps require users to press
The Google and Zoho apps also work well if you simply want an easy way to share a calendar or info about upcoming meetings, or to collaborate on a newsletter with members of your local sports league or garden club, for example.
• Chat vs. forums
When weaving the collaborative concept into your company or group's workflow, don't overlook chat, forums, and wikis.
Several free, stand-alone chat apps, including AIM, Microsoft Live Messenger, and Skype, let you network users through voice or videoconference calls so you can resolve problems immediately. Text chat has become a preferred method of support for the simple reason that the entire conversation is easy to reference in real time, as well as during future sessions. You can also embed text-only chat modules, such as AddonChat, ParaChat, or X7 Chat, directly into your Web site.
For slower-paced, more thoughtful communal discussion, you can always turn to a forum. Forums can help businesses talk through work issues, offer nonemergency support, garner feedback, and provide fertile ground for new ideas. They also can help social groups get in touch to discuss hobbies and other common interests.
Two big names in forum software are free: Phpbb and Simple Machines Forum, which require a MySQL database (a free download, often provided by your Web host). Or you might try vBulletin or IP.Board, affordable options with their own database engines.
• Tweak Vista for peak computing performance
Does Windows Vista annoy you with its slow performance? Sorry, that was a stupid question. Let's jump right in with a few simple and practical ways to improve Vista's overall speed.
Slim down the user interface
Regardless of the task at hand, Vista puts up a beautiful screen; but you wouldn't run a marathon while wearing a tuxedo. So get Vista out of its white tie and tails and into some jogging shorts.
Start by junking the Sidebar. Sure, its analog clock and RSS feed are nice, but perhaps they're not worth the CPU cycles they use. Right-click the Sidebar and select Properties. Uncheck Start Sidebar when Windows starts, and then click OK. The Sidebar will be gone with your next boot.
Next, turn off some or all of Vista's cool-looking but cycle-eating visual effects. Click Start, type sysdm.cpl, press <Enter>, and tell the User Account Control dialog box to Continue. In the System Properties dialog box, select the Advanced tab, and then click the Settings button in the Performance box. In the resulting dialog box's Visual Effects tab, uncheck whichever options you can live without, such as Animate windows when minimising and maximising (available with the Aero environment). Or if you prefer, you can leave the decision up to Windows; to establish this arrangement, simply select Adjust for best performance.
• Access your files and folders fast
Shaving a few seconds off the time necessary to load a file won't help much if you spend 3 minutes looking for it. Here are some ways to quickly reach the programs, files, and folders you need.
Look at the top-left corner of Windows Explorer or a File Open dialog box. The box located there, called Favorite Links, contains--you guessed it--Microsoft's favorite links. If you want to add a link to one of your favorite folders there, just drag the folder from the Folders box underneath into Favorite Links.
You can arrange the links however you like by dragging them up and down. You also have the option of removing one or more of them from the box by right-clicking the item and selecting Remove Link.
You can save some time in your file and folder search if you put everything in one cascading menu. By adding your desktop to the taskbar, you can make every folder on your computer and network easily accessible--along with all the shortcuts on your desktop that usually hide behind open program windows. Simply right-click a blank spot on the taskbar and then select Toolbars, Desktop.
On top of that, there's no need to go through any menus to load a program if you know that program's name. Just click Start or press your keyboard's <Windows> key, and start typing the application name. You don't even have to start at the beginning of the name; typing Elements, for example, will bring up Adobe Photoshop Elements. When the program name appears, press <Enter>.
Below the program name you will see a list of documents and (if you use Vista's Windows Mail program) e-mail messages containing that word. Those additional search results can be handy, but they slow down the search.
You can boost the speed of the Start Searches function by restricting where it looks for the string of characters you type. Right-click the Start button and select Properties. On the Start Menu tab, click Customise, then scroll down until you find the various Search options. The more options you leave checked there, the slower but more thorough your Start Searches will be.
Improve your hardware on the cheap
Hardware tweaks help, too. Increasing the amount of RAM in your system will speed up your PC for a very reasonable price. Vista needs at least 1GB of RAM to perform adequately, but 2GB gives it real speed. See our video "How to Upgrade Your RAM" for details and instructions specific to desktop systems.
If you have a notebook, where such upgrades aren't as standardised, check your vendor's Web site for configuration info.
• Make your PC a private recording studio
Most systems made in the past few years have the horsepower to serve as a home recording studio, though a dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive will ensure glitch-free performance. Out of the box, however, they lack the inputs needed to record real instruments and voices, so you'll have to upgrade your audio interface.
The interface: The audio interface takes in the sound of an instrument or microphone and translates it into zeros and ones for the computer. Your new interface can be either an internal PCI board (replacing the sound card that came with your PC) or an external USB 2.0/FireWire device. Internal PCI offers better performance (speed, not quality) but external units come close, and they also work with laptops and Macs. Interfaces from Digidesign, Edirol, Emu, Lexicon, M-Audio, and Tascam, costing $100 to $500, are all highly regarded. Whichever product you opt for, it should come with three-pin XLR microphone jacks and support 24-bit recording at 48, 96, or 192 kHz (get the highest you can).
The software: Chances are your interface will ship with an LE (light) version of Cakewalk's Sonar, Digidesign's ProTools, or Steinberg's Cubase--the heavy hitters in the home recording software market. The light version should be enough for most home users, but numerous upgrades to these products are available. Prices for upgrades can range well up into the thousands of dollars; such packages provide more control features, more tracks, and better sound. You can find thousands of third-party audio effects and MIDI-triggered virtual instruments (bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, and the like), too, which the PC can play to provide you with a virtual backup band.
Mics and monitors: For recording acoustic instruments and vocals, high-quality microphones are a must. The $100, low-impedance Shure SM-57/58 (for instruments) and a $200 to $400 large diaphragm condenser mic (for vocals) are good choices to start with. Last, but hardly least, a pair of decent studio monitors (speakers) from a popular brand such as Alesis or JBL will convey your sounds with accuracy, at prices starting at around $200.
• Organise your photos
You can eliminate the hassle of hunting for photos on your PC by doing some up-front work with tags, which let you assign multiple search keywords to photos. For instance, you could tag a photo from your Alaska vacation showing both of your kids with each child's name and "Alaska," and it will then turn up in a search for any one of those tags.
I'll explain how to organise your photos in Windows XP (which is actually pretty lame at the task) and in Vista.
To tag a single photo in XP, right-click it in Windows Explorer, select Properties, Summary, and type the tag name into the Keywords field. When entering more than one tag, separate them with semicolons. You can tag multiple photos at once, but doing so deletes any tags you've previously assigned to them.
In Vista, ignore Windows Explorer and click Start, All Programs, Windows Photo Gallery. This program lists all available tags in the left pane. To make a tag, click Create a New Tag, and then just drag the photos to the appropriate tags.
How do you find photos by their tags? In Windows XP, press <F3> to bring up the search panel (if necessary, click the Back button until the panel says 'What do you want to search for?' at the top). Check Pictures and Photos, click Use advanced search options, enter the tag names in the 'A word or phrase' field, and click Search. In Vista's Photo Gallery, simply select one or more tags to see only the qualifying photos.
• Unwire your printer
Making your printer wireless means never having to worry about cables or Windows printer sharing. Best of all, you can add a Wi-Fi print server to the printer you already have.
For this project, we recommend using either the D-Link DPR-1260 ($100) or the Linksys WPSM54G ($120) print server. Both models support scanning and printing on multifunction machines; the D-Link has four USB ports and the Linksys one. To start, make sure print drivers are installed on all the networked PCs. Then plug your printer into the print server, connect the server to your router via ethernet, and power the devices up.
Next, set up the print server from your PC. The Linksys has a superb CD-based wizard that leads you through the entire process, from physical connections to Wi-Fi encryption setup. By contrast, the D-Link has a Web utility that requires you to click around to set up the Wi-Fi connection and add the printer to your computer. Once setup is done, you can disconnect ethernet and restart the server, which will now connect wirelessly.
Finally, set up additional systems by running the computer setup wizard on each of them. If you have any Mac or Linux machines on your network, use the print server's Web utilities to define its static IP address and enable IP printing.
• Set up video chats
Thanks to the Internet, increasing broadband speeds, and some cool new Web-based applications, setting up video chat with your family and friends near and far has never been easier. Not only that, it's practically free.
Getting started: You'll need a reasonably fast Internet connection, some software to facilitate the call, and a decent Webcam and microphone for each party involved. Some camcorders, digital cameras, and camera phones can also function as Webcams; to see whether a device you already own will do that, just consult the user manual.
Webcams: I tested three dedicated Webcams: Logitech's $29 QuickCam Chat and $99 QuickCam Pro for Notebooks, plus Creative's $129 Live Cam AF. All of them worked well, but the two high-end models come with a built-in USB microphone, a setup I strongly recommend for your not-so-tech-savvy chat buddies. Cheaper models usually have a separate analog microphone that plugs into the often-hard-to-locate PC audio input jack.
The software: After plugging in your Webcam, download the chat software and install it. I used Skype, but AIM, Microsoft's Office Live Meeting, and Yahoo Messenger support video chat as well. Configuring Skype was as simple as selecting the video and audio sources, creating an account for each party, and clicking the green Call button.