During our current lockdown it is not possible to see friends and family who don’t live with us, but video calls offer free face-to-face chats and provide that visual connection that standard phone calls cannot. You can also organise group calls with more than one person to share a special occasion or simply sit down for a virtual coffee break.
This resource does not look at every single option – there are simply too many – and the focus is on services that will work for a majority of people in a majority of circumstances, not professional business services.
Before you can make a video call you will need:
- An internet connection. This can be a home broadband connection or a mobile internet connection.
- The device that you will be using to make video calls will need a working camera and microphone. Nearly all smartphones or tablets will be suitable, or computers with a webcam. Smartphones and tablets offer the most flexibility.
- Decide with your contacts which service or app you are going to use. Everyone participating in the call should download the relevant the app and may need to create an account with the chosen video calling service.
Tips for a successful group video call
Give people time to get themselves set up with the required technology. If you can, provide instructions on how to get started – we have linked to guidance for all the services mentioned here. To iron out potential problems, try a test call with people to see that everything is working.
Something to bear in mind when having a group video call is that the conversation can become a bit hectic as people may accidentally talk over each other.
A good solution is to indicate when you want to speak either by raising your hand or holding up a coloured piece of card. For larger groups is may also be useful to have a meeting ‘chair’ so they can allow people to take it in turns to talk. Also, all video calling services let users temporarily mute their microphones if there is too much background noise.
1-to-1 and small group calls
But there are so many services and apps that will let you make video calls free of charge. So with all this choice, what are the best options?
Video calls between two people or a small group of friends can be made using dedicated video calling apps or many of the popular messaging apps that you may already have installed on your smartphone or tablet. Here is an overview of the main options for one-to-one video calls or a handful of people, although some of these can also manage calls for larger groups.
The Good – WhatsApp is the most popular messaging service in the world and supports video calls as well. A WhatsApp account is linked to your mobile phone number, so you can use it without having an email address. WhatsApp has apps for Android and Apple (iOS) devices and so can be used on most smartphones or tablets. You can easily start a call with anyone in your list of contacts who also has WhatsApp installed. WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption to keep your calls completely private.
The Bad – WhatsApp currently only supports video calls with up to 4 people (soon to be 8). It does not have an app for Amazon Fire devices and the app for computers is not capable of handling video calls – though you can use it for messaging. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, but their encryption means the company is unable to see any messages you send.
The Good – Facetime is the built-in video calling app on Apple devices. So if you have an iPhone or an iPad it is definitely an option to consider. Facetime can also support up to 32 people on any call and Apple has a strong focus on privacy.
The Bad – Facetime’s shortcoming is that it is not available on non-Apple devices. If you don’t have an iPhone, an iPad or a Mac computer, you simply cannot use it. So if you want to call someone who is using a Samsung smartphone, for example, you will need to use a different app.
The Facetime app for iOS devices can be found at the following link.
The Good – If you use Facebook then the standalone Facebook Messenger app could be a good fit for your video calling needs as you can simply download it and login with your existing Facebook account. Messenger allows video calls with up to 50 people and works on all major smartphone and tablet platforms, as well as on PC and Mac computers. You can also use it for calling anyone who has the Facebook Portal device as well.
The Bad – As with everything connected to Facebook, the downside of Messenger is that it is controlled by Facebook. There is no denying that the company has a very poor record when it comes to how is uses our data and there are many people who will simply not use their services as a result.
Apps for Facebook Messenger can be found at the following links.
Duo (from Google)
The Good – Duo is coming pre-installed on more smartphones and tablets that use the Android operating system. The app is available for Apple (iOS) devices and you can start a 1-to-1 video call from a web browser on your computer. Being a latecomer to the video calling market, Duo also benefits from having a fairly straightforward interface. The app currently supports calls with up to 12 participants.
The Bad – Google has a history of launching and then closing messaging apps, so it remains to be seen whether Duo will continue in its current form given that the company has a very similar service called Hangouts/Meet. As with Facebook, Google’s transparency as a company and approach to privacy is less than ideal.
Larger group calls
Group calls have provided an essential means of connecting with others for a number of dementia groups. The Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project DEEP) is a long-term user of ZOOM and the ability to quickly scale this technology over recent weeks has been a standout in terms of how vital technology is for many people living with dementia. While the following services can easily be used for smaller groups or one-to-one calls, they have been specifically built for connecting larger groups together.
The Good – Although essentially a business communications tool, ZOOM has found its place within dementia advocacy groups due to its relative ease of use and availability across all types of devices. As well as having apps for smartphones and tablets, ZOOM can be used on computers and you can participate in a video call without having to create a (free) account. For anyone who doesn’t want the hassle of remembering login details, this is plus point, although the person who initiates a call will need to have an account. The quality of ZOOM’s calls is generally reliable.
The Bad – ZOOM’s free calls are generally limited to 40 minutes for groups of more than three. As with other major technology companies, ZOOM’s attitude towards privacy has been poor and lacking in oversight. After recent criticism the company is taking steps to improve this, but there is plenty more to be done.
You can watch DEEP’s guide to using ZOOM for a community meeting below.
The Good – Skype is the original consumer video calling tool, becoming a verb before most of the other services here even existed. Skype is available on smartphones and tablets, computers and via a web browser. As of April 2020, you can also create and participate in a video call without having to create a (free) account using Skype’s Meet Now option.
The Bad – Skype has gathered a little ‘dust’ since being acquired by Microsoft in 2011 and consequently the interface is a bit cluttered. This can be intimidating to new users. Microsoft is rolling out a consumer version of its Teams service, which includes video calling, so it is uncertain where this leaves Skype.