Keeping in touch during self-isolation via computers

We’re all responsibly self-isolating because we don’t want to get sick ourselves or spread COVID-19 to others.  Here are some ways to chat or video chat during this time.  The “notes” below are optional and can probably be skipped.

Can you cut to the chase and suggest the best option for me?

  • If you’ve got iOS and only care about talking with people on iOS, probably just use FaceTime.
  • If everybody you want to chat with has an Alexa Show, that works well and is easy to set up.
  • Otherwise Google Hangouts or Microsoft Skype are great – or maybe WhatsApp

What you need (you probably already have most of this)

  1. A video camera.  Most likely, this will already be integrated into a cell phone or a laptop, but you can also use dedicated webcams that plug into a computer.  This is how you’ll send videos to other people.  In this, I’ll talk about the mic being attached to a computer, but it could be a phone.
  2. A microphone and speakers.  This is almost definitely integrated into your phone, laptop, or the webcam you’ve already got.
    1. One note: You might find you are better off with the sounds being on your head rather that on the computer.  The two main reasons for this would be (1) there is sound feeding back into the mic you don’t want to send through the chat (like if you type on your keyboard it will create thumps that your computer mic can’t mute out) or (2) you might want to walk around a little while you leave your camear in place (like if you leave a phone in a kitchen while cooking and you walk away a little from the mic and speakers).  The best way to improve this is to use some kind of headset – either a bluetooth hands-free kit or just a wired headset.  Personally I don’t think it is worthwhile to spend a lot of money on this.  I use these $30 Anker headphones for running, but there are plenty of adequate headphones available for <$20.  There are also lots of terrible headphones available at that price point, so don’t just sort by lowest price.
  3. A network that can support video chat. This is pretty easy to understand, but can be tricky to get right in practice.  Basically you need a fairly fast download to get video(s) from the person (or people) you want to chat with, plus the ability to send video to them and a reasonable uplink to send your video out.  You can test your download/upload speeds by using the test available from Ookla’s (or from the app available for phones)
    1. One note: depending on the system you use or your home network (if using a PC) you might need to jump through some additional hoops to configure your network to allow the video chat to work.  You should get stepped through testing and fixing this during the setup of your video chat software.
    2. One note for phones: You might actually learn that your phone gets faster performance when not connected to wifi (when connected to your cell phone carrier).  If you are using a phone, I suggest getting the ookla speedtest application and testing your bandwidth on and off of your wifi.
  4. Software.  This is where there are the most options available and the next section will describe different options, why you might or might not choose them.
  5. People to keep in touch with.  This probably seems obvious, but it’s impacted by the software choice because not everyone is on all software and not all software can do the same things as one another.

What are the hardware and software options?

In alphabetical order.  All of these have a “con” that they are limited to interact with people with accounts in that system (e.g. you can’t use an Alexa device to chat with someone who is on Hangouts or vice versa)

  1. Amazon Alexa / Echo. $230 for (optional) Echo Show device.  Free with Alexa app on phones.
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: one-to-one video calling between people who have an Amazon account and a phone number.
    2. How to use: Installing the app on a phone, log in with Amazon account, register by validating your telephone number.  You can then place calls to your contacts using their phone number (which they must have validated, also).  You have the option (from your app) to call their phone, or to call their Alexa device.
    3. Pros: Good integration with Amazon’s devices.
    4. Cons: Only allows person-to-person calls (No group calling)
  2. Google Hangouts. Free with Hangouts app on phones.
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: Audio or video chat, one-to-one and group, with your contacts.
    2. How to use: Installing the app on your phone or visiting the website, you log in with your google account.  You can then do audio, video, text chat with your contacts who you look up by their Google account.
    3. Pros: Good integration with all of Google’s services (like Gmail), supports multi-person video chat, can work in the browser (from without additional software.
    4. Cons: No callouts.
  3. Microsoft Skype. Free app for phones and computers.
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: Audio or video chat, one-to-one and group, with your contacts.
    2. How to use: Install the app on your phone or computer, log in with your Microsoft account, and find contacts by email, name, or SkypeID.
    3. Pros: Multi-person chat. Skype is one of the oldest platforms for video chat and has a large base of people with an account.  Never-the-less, for whatever reason it does not seem to be the most widely used.
    4. Cons: No callouts.
  4. WhatsApp. Free app for phones (and, it seems, computers?
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: Audio or video chat and walkie-talkie like video messaging.
    2. How to use: Install the app on your phone, register and login.
    3. Pros: Multi-person video chat (up to 4).  Pretty widely used by young people.
    4. Cons: No callouts
  5. Zoom. Web-based chat, frequently used for business and group settings
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: More professional system that supports chat that functions more like a meeting (time is scheduled, large groups are supported, attendees may dial in from a telephone without a computer at all).
    2. How to use: An organizer registers a zoom account and sets up a meeting (requesting a time) and meeting connection information is then shared with selected meeting invitees.  Invitees then connect to the meeting at the scheduled time using (A) the meeting ID and (B) meeting pin (distributed with the meeting information).  Invitees may join from a telephone.
    3. Pros: Good free platform for meetings with a large number of people and including people who only want to join via telephone.
    4. Cons: Cumbersome to set up ad hoc or spontaneous chats.

Apple has a thing too, called Facetime.  Like most Apple things, it only exists in their closed platform and unless your friend or family has an Apple phone or device, you cannot communicate with them.  I specifically don’t recommend it because at a minimum it requires someone go spend hundreds of dollars on Apple’s expensive platform.

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