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Amp up Your Video Chats With These Essential Tools

A woman wearing a headset and speaking to a group in a video chat.

Video chats can be a little embarrassing, especially if your video or call quality isn’t up to snuff. But most common video problems, like bad lighting or crappy audio, can be fixed with just a few simple tools.

First, Troubleshoot Your Issues

There’s a good chance that you’re struggling with just one or two video issues. Maybe your video is too dark, or you keep running into audio feedback during conferences. Either way, you probably don’t need to replace your whole video setup, so let’s take a moment to figure out the exact problems that we need to deal with.

Here are some common video call issues that you might be struggling with:

  • Video Issues
    • Poor Video Quality: Crappy video is usually a sign of a cheap or outdated webcam. There’s a good chance that you’ll need to buy a new one, especially if you’re using one that’s built into your computer.
    • Grainy, Ugly Video: Video that’s grainy or pixelated might be a sign of poor lighting. We’ll cover how to resolve some common lighting issues without rearranging your office or emptying out your wallet.
    • Issues During Calls: If your video only looks bad during calls, then it’s possible that you’re dealing with a network issue. Your home internet might be too slow, you may be too far from your router, or you may need to reset your router and modem.
  • Audio Issues
    • “What? Can You Repeat That?”: If other people are having trouble hearing you, then you probably need to replace your microphone. You could buy a dedicated USB mic or a headset.
    • “I Can Hear You Typing”: You can’t eliminate background all background noise, but you can tone it down by using a dedicated mic, a headset, or by pressing the mute button while listening to others speak.
    • Difficulty Hearing Other People: If you’re having trouble hearing other callers, then you should start using headphones. This may also be a sign that your partners need new mics.
    • Audio Feedback (Screeching): Audio feedback is caused when your microphone picks up audio from your speakers. This is another reason why you should wear headphones during calls.

These are some of the most common problems that people run into during video calls. We’re going to cover how to resolve each of these issues, along with some problems that you might have with your call location (“unprofessional” home, people in the background, etc).

Fix Crummy, Dark, or Stuttering Video

A group of businesspeople in a video chat.

Video issues are frustrating and difficult to pinpoint. Thankfully, they’re pretty easy to fix. At the end of the day, you can fix just about any video problem by replacing your webcam, adjusting your lighting, or troubleshooting your home internet connection.

Replace Your Webcam

If your webcam shoots atrocious, abysmal video, then it probably needs to be replaced. You don’t need to buy the best webcam on the planet, but an external option that shoots HD video is  a necessity for tolerable video chats. (Your laptop’s built-in webcam may shoot in HD but still look like crap. This is because, for whatever reason, most laptop webcams are genuinely terrible.)

We suggest sticking with a mid-range webcam like the $70 Logitech C615, which shoots video in 1080p, is fully rotatable, and can clip onto any monitor. If you’re willing to spend a bit more money, the $100 Logitech C925E is an incredibly high-quality option, and if you’re on a budget, then the $50 Logitech C310 is will give you a good bang for your buck (just be sure to dial in your lighting).

Fix Lighting Issues With a Cheap Desk Lamp

Grainy, ugly, or oddly angelic-looking video is often the result of poor lighting. A large light source behind your head can throw off your webcam’s white balance, overhead lighting can make you look creepy, and a total lack of lighting will, naturally, produce crap video.

You can solve most lighting issues by evening out the lighting of your room and aiming any intense light in front of your face, rather than behind your head. This means turning on your room lights, adjusting your blinds, and (if you can) moving around your room until things look good. Keep in mind that the light from your window may not be consistent—try to use a good mix of artificial and natural lighting.

Or, you could simply add an additional light source to your room. We’re going to use a cheap desk lamp, as they’re small and adjustable. Pointing the desk lamp directly at your face will make you look like a ghoul, so you’ll want to try aiming it at the wall behind your computer instead. This way, light will softly reflect off your wall and illuminate your face without casting any creepy shadows.

A lamp with a shade may also work in this situation, although you might have to move it around to get a good angle. If you don’t own a desk lamp, we suggest buying this cheap LED ring lamp from Miady. It’s fully adjustable and puts out a lot of soft light.

Stuttering Video Might Be a Network Issue

Take a moment to open your desktop’s camera app. If your video looks great from within the camera app, but grainy or stuttery during calls, then you’re probably dealing with a network issue.

These issues are rare for people outside of rural areas, as most video calling services only require 1 or 2 MBps network speeds. Of course, it’s possible that you’re sitting too far from your router or that some kind of hardware issue is causing intermittent connections.

First, power-cycle your router for 10 to 20 seconds. Then, connect your computer to your router via Ethernet cable (if you don’t have one, just sit close to your router), and run a Speed Test. If your speeds are below 1 or 2 MBps, then you’ll need to speed up your home internet with some simple tools or ask your ISP to check for equipment issues in area. People with adequate speeds should move their router to an open area, replace it with something more powerful, or ask their ISP about local equipment problems.

Sharpen Your Audio and Eliminate Noisy Feedback

A man wearing a headset and talking on video chat.

It’s hard to feel engaged in a video chat when you’re working with a bad audio setup. So how do you create a good audio setup? It’s simple: you have to reduce ambient noise, use a decent microphone, and wear a pair of headphones.

Whatever You Do, Wear Headphones

The most important point here, aside from using a decent mic, is to wear some cans. Headphones eliminate audio feedback or echo effects, as they keep your microphone from picking up and broadcasting any incoming voices or sounds. Plus, headphones make it easier to hear the people you’re chatting with, especially if they’re using bad microphones.

You don’t need to buy the most expensive headphones on the planet. A cheap pair of over-ears or earbuds will get the job done just fine. Headsets are another option, but we’ll get to that in a second.

Grab a USB Mic for Clean Audio

Sure, webcams have built-in microphones, but they aren’t a very good “professional” option. Webcam mics tend to pick up a lot of ambient sound, and they don’t have the radio-smooth clarity that keeps people listening.

Desktop USB mics, the kind that people use for podcasting, are much better options than webcam mics. They provide clarity for your voice without picking up nasty room sounds, and they minimize audio frequencies that people don’t need to hear over a video chat. They’re easy to use, and they can come in handy when recording presentations or pet projects.

You can get away with using an inexpensive desktop mic, like the $47 AmazonBasics mini condenser. Still, we suggest sticking with the Blue Yeti, which is the king of desktop mics. If these options seem a little pricey or impractical, then you should consider grabbing a nice headset instead.

A Headset Can Kill Two Birds With One Stone

Headsets are just headphones with a built-in mic. They’re the easiest, most straightforward path to good audio. You don’t have to buy an expensive desktop mic, and you don’t have to worry about stringing a bunch of wires around your computer.

We recently did a roundup of our favorite headsets, with a big emphasis on Jabra’s premium devices. Still, there are budget options, like the $20 Logitech H151 or the $40 Mpow M5.

Can’t Clean Your Room? Hide It.

A man freaking out before a meeting because his room is dirty.

One consequence of high-quality video is that your friends and coworkers get to pick out all the elements of your living space. This isn’t just an issue of dirty laundry (although that’s certainly a part of it). Some posters or decorations may not give off an air of “professionalism,” some home offices are in common areas where family members roam, and some people are just too judgy to look into a home without making a stupid comment.

There are, of course, a few very simple solutions to this problem. Laptop users can sit with their back to a wall (just don’t go outside), and desktop users with messy rooms can just shove everything out of view. But if your situation is more complicated, then you should try using a room divider or screen.

Room dividers, like this cheap 4-panel option from Amazon are lightweight and easy to set up on the fly. They also make for pleasant decorations, and can help you focus if your home office is set up in a common area. If you want to save a bit of extra cash, you could always buy a cheaper fabric divider, or (if you’re in a small office) install a tension rod and curtains behind your desk.

If these options don’t really work for you, then you could always use the background-hiding tools that are baked into software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is the News Editor for Review Geek, where he covers breaking stories and manages the news team. He joined Life Savvy Media as a freelance writer in 2018 and has experience in a number of topics, including mobile hardware, audio, and IoT. Read Full Bio »