This year, a lot of people are using video chat for the first time, and many of them may not be comfortable with technology in general. If you want to have a vacation video chat with your family, what̵
The answer is predictably complicated. It generally depends on the platforms you are already comfortable with and how many people in whatever chat you want to engage with are comfortable with them too.
The simplest option: Facebook Messenger
Facebook Messenger (and its video chat feature) is probably the easiest and most reliable way to have a video chat with friends and family right now. It works well, and chances are most or all of the people you want to talk to already have both a Facebook account and a compatible gadget. It can be accessed from almost any computer or mobile device – all you really need on top of an internet connection is a browser (for laptops and desktops) or the Messenger app (for phones or tablets with iOS or Android). If you’re using a desktop computer, you also need a webcam.
In the main Facebook interface, click the Messenger icon (the little speech bubble with a zigzag in it), start a chat with someone from your friends list, then click the video icon in the corner. Bam, you started a video call. You can of course chat with as many people as you can fit on the screen, up to 50, but there is also the option for a group video chat: just start a chat with several people and tap or click the video icon.
Facebook sells a special video chat device called the Portal. It comes in the form of a picture frame and webcam (good for using a TV), but these are not necessary to use Facebook Messenger’s video chat. They can be a good alternative if you are chatting with someone unfamiliar with computers or mobile devices. However, there is a high cost of entry to Portal, which is something to consider.
For Apple households: FaceTime
FaceTime is Apple’s own video calling system (not Facebook’s – yes, it’s a bit confusing). It comes preinstalled for free on almost any Apple device including the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and MacBook laptops.
FaceTime is arguably the simplest, easiest chat system in the world, and the quality is pretty good too. It is integrated with the dialer on the iPhone and the contacts system in your Apple account. To start a FaceTime call, call up the name or phone number of your contact and tap or click the FaceTime icon (the little video camera). You can also switch to FaceTime during a standard call, assuming the person’s number or Apple account is registered in the system.
Using FaceTime with a group is almost as easy. For this you will want to open the dedicated FaceTime application or the Messages app and then start a new chat. Put as many people as you want (maximum 32) on the “To” line and add people with the + icon. When you’re done, tap “Video” to start the conversation. You can add new people to the conversation 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: Microsoft Teams
Of course, many people don’t own Apple-branded devices, and Apple has been very determined not to allow 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, the Microsoft Teams tool is the easiest free way to do it.
Teams is a lot like Skype, designed specifically for businesses to talk to remote workers, but it’s also free for personal use. 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 need to sign up on the Teams site (any email address is sufficient) and once you launch the app you can invite anyone by entering their email address. If they don’t already have Microsoft Teams, an invitation will be sent automatically when they add their email address. To start a video call, press or click the camera icon.
Since it is designed for large companies, the maximum number of participants allowed in a Teams call is 20, which should be enough for even the most extended families. Team conversations can last up to four hours.
Bringing everyone together
If you have one or more locations with a large group of people, it can be difficult to get them all on the screen at once. The cameras on phones, tablets and laptops are generally intended for only one person at a time.
Here’s a solution: use a computer and a dedicated webcam with a wide-angle lens, such as the Logitech C930e or the Lenovo 500. If you place a laptop next to a TV and use an HDMI cable, you can place the webcam on it from the TV and use it as a monitor for a fairly easy and cheap collection of large screens, although the sound may not be great.
Of course, dedicated webcams will become difficult to find during the pandemic. If you have a camera from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Wyze or many other manufacturers, you can connect it to a computer and use it as an improvised webcam too.