Get Digitally Connected

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Is your brood in need of a high-tech upgrade? Many families who have cut back on travel are looking for ways to keep connected to their out-of-state relatives. The good news is, there are plenty of web services out there that can help – no matter how spread out your family is. Even better, most are free or inexpensive. Read on to hook up with three primo options.

Skype.com: Computer calling

How it works: Consider Skype your computer’s answer to the phone. Once you download the program for free, you can call anyone else who has it (and there are millions!). If the other person doesn’t have Skype, you can still call their cell phone or a landline, but you’ll pay a nominal per-minute fee.

How it helps: Beyond calling, if you have a webcam, you can talk live to family members (only one-to-one; no multiple call-ins). Also, you can choose to have Skype run on your computer all the time (called "presence feature"). Like instant messaging, Skype lets you know when someone from your contact list is online. You can give them a quick call right from your computer. Skype will automatically grab all of the names and numbers in your contact list, so you can just click and call.

There are some limitations: Certain family members might not be willing to do the download. But where Skype can really benefit families is when they’re spread across continents. If you have relatives overseas or travel frequently abroad, this program is an inexpensive, easy way to chat.

How much it costs: Free. But you may need a headset (under $20) or a Webcam (around $100). If you’re calling a cell or landline, calls will cost, but the rates start at a reasonable 2.1 cents a minute.

OoVoo.com: Live video chats

How it works: Like Skype, ooVoo.com can act as your computer’s personal telephone. But ooVoo’s real draw is video chatting. You’ll need to download ooVoo to get started, and those you talk to need to have the program running, too.

How it helps: You can bring up to six people into the conversation and see them all at the same time while you’re talking. Or record a video message on ooVoo and save it as a flash file. Then, email your message to your family or post it on a blog or a video-sharing site like YouTube.

How much it costs: Free. You’ll need a computer with a built-in webcam, or you can purchase one for around $100.

OneTrueMedia.com: Video scrapbook

How it works: Convert endless files of digital pictures into professional-looking videos in minutes (with music!). Register on OneTrueMedia.com’s (www.onetruemedia.om) site to get started.

How it helps: You can upload digital photos, and with a few clicks, create slide shows videos with music and preset backgrounds. Share videos on a blog, post them on YouTube, email them, or even send them to a family member’s TiVo. Pop a recent event onto a DVD, too.

How much it costs: You won’t pay to create the videos or to share them online. But if you want to give out DVDs, prices start at $9.99. There are frequent specials on the site. It also offers a premium package for $39.99 a year. The upgrade gives more options and effects to add to your montage; plus, you can download your creations to an iPod.

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