16 e-mail and instant messaging boosters

Communicate better with these (mostly free) downloads

If you don't have a webcam, you can still view video-chat rooms. And you can talk in the chat rooms through your microphone and keyboard, even without a webcam. The chat rooms themselves are varied, with many reserved for specific interests. Be aware, though, that quite a few video-chat rooms are X-rated, so anyone with children should think twice before downloading this software.

When you install the program, it will install the Yahoo Toolbar for Internet Explorer, plus WeFi software for locating wireless hot spots; if you don't want them, remember to uncheck their boxes.

Download Camfrog Video Chat | Price: Free

PaltalkScene: This chat client connects you to thousands of chat rooms that cover many hundreds of topics, everything from Elvis to politics to technology to trivia -- in fact, just about anything you can name. Once you launch the software, you'll be able to browse all chat rooms or see a list of the top rooms from which you can choose. Just click the room you're interested in, and you're ready to go. You can voice chat as well as chat via your keyboard.

In addition to participating in public rooms, you can create your own private rooms. The program also includes instant messaging for one-on-one chats. In the free version, you get unlimited text and voice chat, but you can view only 10 seconds of video chat. If you want unlimited video, you'll have to pay a monthly fee.

When you install PaltalkScene, it will install the Ask Toolbar for searching, so make sure to uncheck that option if you don't want it installed.

Download PaltalkScene | Price: Free

IceChat: The old-time IRC (Internet Relay Chat) protocol is alive and well, with countless people using it for chats and exchanging files every day. IRC will never be accused of being easy to use. But with the straightforward and free IceChat, you'll be able to participate without a problem. You won't have to know special commands: Just run the program, connect to an IRC server and channel, and start chatting. If you're not clear on what to do, a toolbar full of icons lets you accomplish any IRC task.

Even with this program, IRC can be challenging, but the IceChat Web site has plenty of help. Particularly useful is this basics page, which is an excellent introduction to IRC.

Download IceChat | Price: Free

Skype: Here's the simplest way to save money on your phone bill: Use Skype. It lets you make Internet-based VoIP (Voice over IP) phone calls for free to anyone in the world who also uses Skype on their PC, and it allows you to make inexpensive calls from your PC to landlines and cell phones worldwide. It's an instant messenger as well.

If you've heard of Skype but are worried that it's hard to set up, fret not. It will automatically recognize your headset, microphone and speakers, so you don't need to worry about configuration. To call another Skype user, just enter a username, and you're ready to go. You can also save a list of users, so calling them back is simple. To call landlines and cell phones, you need to set up an account and buy credit. Whenever you make a call, you use some of that credit.

Skype also lets you video chat and text chat, and send SMS messages. The newest version of Skype features nifty integration with Firefox: With one click, you can call any phone number you see on a Web site.

Download Skype | Price: Free

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