This year a lot of people are using video chat for the first time, and a lot of them might not be comfortable with technology in general. If you’re trying to have a holiday video chat with your family, what’s the easiest way for all of them to get on board?
The answer is, predictably, complicated. It generally depends on what platforms you’re already comfortable with and how many people in whatever chat you want to hold are also comfortable with them.
The Easiest Option: Facebook Messenger
Facebook Messenger (and its associated video chat function) is probably the easiest and most reliable way to have a video chat with friends and family at the moment. It works well, and there’s an excellent chance that most or all of the people you want to talk to already have both a Facebook account and a compatible gadget. It’s accessible from almost any computer or mobile device—all you really need on top of a web connection is a browser (for laptops and desktops) or the Messenger app (for phones or tablets running iOS or Android). If you’re using a desktop computer, you’ll also need a webcam.
From the main Facebook interface, click the Messenger icon (the little speech bubble with a zig-zag inside it), start a chat with someone on your Friends list, then click the video icon in the corner. Bam, you’ve got a video call started. Of course, you can chat with as many people as you can fit on the screen at one time, up to 50, but there’s also the option for a group video chat: Just start a chat with multiple people and tap or click the video icon.
Facebook sells a dedicated video chat device, the Portal. It comes in picture frame and webcam form factors (good for using a TV), but these aren’t necessary to use Facebook Messenger’s video chat. They might be a good alternative if you’re chatting with someone who lacks familiarity with computers or mobile devices—there’s a high cost of entry for Portal, however, which is something to consider.
Buy from Facebook. Starts at $65 for the smallest version.
For Apple Households: FaceTime
FaceTime is Apple’s proprietary video calling system (not Facebook’s—yeah, it’s a little confusing). It’s pre-installed for free on basically any Apple device, including the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and MacBook laptops.
FaceTime might be the simplest, easiest chat system on the planet, and its quality is pretty darn good, too. It’s integrated with the dialer on the iPhone and the contacts system in your Apple account. To start a FaceTime call, just bring up your contact’s name or phone number in either, and tap or click the FaceTime icon (the little video camera). You can also switch to FaceTime in the middle of a standard voice call, assuming that the person’s number or Apple account is registered in the system.
Using FaceTime with a group is almost as easy. For this, you’ll want to open either the dedicated FaceTime application or the Messages app, then start a new chat. Put as many people as you want (up to 32) in the “To” line, adding people with the + icon. When you’re ready, tap “Video” to initiate the call. You can add new people to the call at any time. If you have an existing group chat in Messages, just tap the FaceTime button at the top of the app.
For Everyone Else: Microsoft Teams
Of course, lots of people don’t have Apple-branded devices, and Apple has been very staunch about not letting anyone else into the FaceTime party. And despite the fact that an account is free, there are plenty of reasons to stay away from Facebook. If you want to video chat with people who don’t have either option, Microsoft’s Teams tool is the easiest free way to do so.
Teams is a lot like Skype, designed specifically for businesses to talk with remote workers, but it’s free for personal use, too. The Teams app is available on iOS and Android devices, as a dedicated Windows app download, or on any laptop or desktop (including MacOS and Chromebooks) as a web app. You’ll need to sign up at the Teams site (any email address will do), and once you’ve launched the app, you can invite anyone by entering their email address. If they don’t have Microsoft Teams yet, adding their email will automatically send an invite. To start a video call, just press or click the camera icon.
Because it’s designed for large corporations, the maximum number of participants allowed in a Teams call is 20, which should be enough for even the most extended of families. Teams calls can last for up to four hours.
Getting Everyone Together
If you have one or more locations with a large group of people, getting them all on screen at the same time might be tricky. The cameras on phones, tablets, and laptops are generally meant for just one person at a time.
There’s a work-around for this: Use a computer and dedicated webcam with a wide angle lens, like the Logitech C930e or the Lenovo 500. If you place a laptop near a TV and use an HDMI cable, you can put the webcam on top of the TV and use it as a monitor for a fairly easy and inexpensive big-screen gathering, though the sound might not be great.
Of course, dedicated webcams are becoming hard to find during the pandemic. If you have a camera from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Wyze, or many other manufacturers, you can plug it into a computer and use it as a makeshift webcam, too.