Zooming with the Grandkids, Nieces, and Nephews: Five Free and Easy Video Chat Apps for the Holidays
All the kids are doing it, and so can you.
If you haven’t hopped onto a video chat with the family yet, the holidays are a great time to give it a whirl. While there are plenty of apps and services out there for video chatting, I put together a quick list of the more no-nonsense options.
Broadly speaking, I selected video chatting apps that are free, relatively straightforward, and possibly something you already have on your smartphone, tablet, or computer. From there, I also offer up some advice that can keep you and your family safe while you chat. Let’s take a look …
Video chatting with your smartphone or tablet
One of the easiest ways to hop onto a video chat is with your smartphone or tablet. They can save you a bit of configuring and fiddling around with settings because these devices have cameras, microphones, and video chat apps already built in. In that way, they’re optimized for video chat, so using one of them is practically “point and shoot.”
Depending on what smartphone or tablet you have, you have a couple of leading options:
FaceTime – iOS and Mac OS devices
Pre-installed on iPhones and iPads, FaceTime can connect up to 32 people on iOS and Mac OS devices at one time. That way, if you want to chat with a few family members at once, you can have plenty of people join in. Note that only iOS and Mac OS devices can use FaceTime, so the person you want to chat with will need FaceTime on a iOS or Mac OS device as well. Connections are quite simple. In fact, as simple as making a phone call. You can start a FaceTime call with a tap of family members in your contact list. Your device does the rest.
Google Duo – Android devices and multiple platforms
Google Duo is a voice chat app much akin to FaceTime that’s found on plenty of Android phones and tablets. However, it differs from FaceTime because it’s available for multiple platforms. For example, there’s a Google Duo app for iPhones, so if your grandkids have iPhones, they can install the Google Duo on their iPhones and have a chat with you on your Android phone.
Also, you can use Google Duo on a web browser without an app by clicking here. That’s a great option if you have a camera-ready laptop or computer—which we’ll talk about more next.) Google Duo also features “Family Mode” where you can put on masks and make doodles on the screen if you’re signed in with a Google account.
Free video chat from your computer
If you don’t have a smartphone or tablet, there are still plenty of options that are free and relatively easy as well.
For starters, you’ll need a laptop or computer with a microphone and camera, which is more or less standard in laptops today. If your laptop or computer doesn’t have that combo already, not to worry. There are plenty of moderately priced web cameras that include a microphone. I suggest getting one with a physical lens cap. That way it always protects your privacy. Likewise, you can always disconnect yours when it’s not in use.
With that, here are a few options for video chatting on your computer:
Originally aimed at a business audience, families and schools quickly latched on to Zoom for its ease of use at the start of the pandemic. Zoom offers unlimited time and unlimited calls for one-to-one meetings yet has a 40-minute limit once there are more than two devices connected. While there’s an app available, I recommend that you set up a free account and run it through a browser window. That way, you don’t have to deal with an install and you’ll always have the latest security protocols in play.
Skype from Microsoft has been around for a long time, getting its start back in the early 2000’s as a voice and text chatting app. Today, it comes standard on Windows PCs and supports apps for all kinds of tablets and smartphones too. Up to 50 people can join, which is of course plenty. If you want to create a video chat without an account, you can simply visit this page and start an instant video chat with a click. That’ll give you a link that you can copy and share with your family. And when they click on that link, you’ll all be connected.
Free to anyone with a free Google Gmail account, you can use Google Meet just by clicking its icon from your Google apps menu or by visiting https://meet.google.com/. Originally designed for businesses, governments, and schools, this premium product is now available to all. Some nice features include the ability to schedule a meeting with your family using Google Calendar and additional security features that help make sure your call is private. Like Zoom and Skype, it can run in the window of your browser, so there’s no app to download and install.
Setting up your computer for a video call
As I mentioned above, there’s practically setup when it comes to running a video call on your smartphone or tablet, as they’re already configured for video. Computers, however, may take a little more effort.
The first thing is to make sure that your microphone, speakers, and camera are all set up and ready to go. If you have a Windows computer, you can check out this quick article to get your audio set up and this article for setting up your camera. For Macs, check out this article for audio and this article for video.
From there, you can log into your video chat app or service of choice and give your audio and video a test just to make sure everything is a go. You can do this before you make a call by starting the app as you normally would and then clicking on the menu item for “Settings.” Each app handles it a little differently, yet the interface should show you if it detects your camera, microphone, and speakers. Once you’re set up, you likely won’t have to go back in and do it again.
Lights, camera, chat!
Now, it’s time to think like a movie director. As you might think, the camera angle and lighting in your room make all the difference on a video chat.
In a way, the camera is the way you’ll make eye contact with your family. Set the camera or hold your device so that it’s at eye level with you. That way, it’ll appear like you’re making eye contact with them. Few things feel stranger on a video chat than a camera angle that appears to have you looking down at them (and with them looking up your nose in return).
As for lighting, avoid sitting with a light source behind you. The camera will adjust itself to the light source instead of you, putting your face in the dark. Instead, look to have a light source that’s in front and a bit off to the side from you. That’ll light your face without washing out your face in harsh light. Likewise, if you’re sitting in front of a computer monitor while you’re chatting, see if you can lower the brightness on the monitor. That’ll keep your video looking great as well.
Keeping safe on your calls
Once you’re all set up, here are a few things that will help keep your calls private and secure.
Set a password
If you’re initiating the chat, be sure to create a password that that uninvited parties can’t join the call. Also, don’t be shy about asking your family members to use a password on the calls they initiate. It’s pretty much a standard practice nowadays.
Double-check any video chat invitation links
Many services, like Zoom, allow people to join a video chat by clicking a link. As with any link that’s sent to you, be sure that it’s legitimate. Confirm the link with the family member who sent it, particularly if you weren’t expecting one.
Use security software
Likewise, make sure that you’re using comprehensive security software that protects you from scam emails and links, plus block links that could send you to sketchy websites. That way, if you do get sent a bogus invite link from a scammer, you’ll be protected.
Join using your browser when you can
When you click a link to join a video call from your computer, it will open a new browser tab that will prompt you to join the call. Often, there will be an option to “join using the app,” which your browser will automatically download if you click that option. However, the easiest way to join is by clicking the option to “join using my browser.” In addition to being a no-fuss option, it also means one less app on your device to keep current.
Keep your apps up to date
Aside from giving you the latest features and functionality, updates also often include essential security improvements. Set your computer to update itself automatically and consider using security software that will scan for vulnerabilities and install updates automatically as needed.
Chat it up!
With the holidays upon us and the and New Year on the horizon, now’s a great time to give video chatting a try. As with any new app you try, do a little research of your own before you download it. Check out the news reviews to see if it’s right for you or if there have been any security concerns.
I hope this overview gives you a great start and that it becomes just one more of the many ways you keep in touch, whether during the holidays or year ’round.