A beginner's guide to video chatting in the age of physical distancing

In these physically isolating times, it can be nice to see a friendly face.

Video chatting is a pretty good option when you're trying to keep physical distance.

But where to get started if you aren't familiar with the technology?

CBC Saskatoon Morning explored the options with experts and did a bit of field testing to help you out.

Know what's already in your hand

Most people who have a cellphone already have video-chatting apps, whether they know it or not.

If you have an iPhone, you already have FaceTime and can make a video call with other Apple phone users.

If you have Google set up on your phone, you likely already have Google Duo.

You will need to check with the person or people you want to talk to about what they have. For example, if you're an Android user and they're an iPhone user, Facetime won't work.

Before downloading a new app, check to see if you already have an app on your phone that will work for all parties. For example, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have video call options (although WhatsApp only works for one-on-one conversations).

The pros for all of these, if your fellow chatters already have them, are that they're already installed so you don't need to download a new app. Plus they're easy to use.

Most work well with small video chats, say six or less people, but keep in mind that the more people on a call, the smaller their faces will appear.

Cellphone, laptop or desktop?

Cellphones are convenient for the aforementioned reasons.

Laptops are another good option. Anyone with Facebook or Google can use Facebook Messenger or Google Hangouts without needing to download any programs. All they need is to log in.

Desktops require a bit more equipment. You'll need a plan for how to get your image and sound out to your fellow video callers. Do you have a webcam? Do you have something with a microphone for sound? Keep in mind that you'll be tied to one place instead of having the mobility of a laptop or cellphone.

Samanda Brace/CBC News

Pick a program

Once you've made up your mind on whether to use a cellphone, laptop or desktop, you'll need to pick a program.

If you are having a tough time finding one that everyone you want to chat with all has already, it's time to download something new.

Zoom is increasingly popular right now, with more than 600,000 new downloads worldwide on Sunday, according to Apptopia.

Briana Brownell runs a tech company in Saskatoon, and while she started using Zoom for work meetings, she says it's increasingly popular with her friends partly because it has a grid view for all participant's faces. They have dubbed it "Brady Bunch mode" because of its similarities to the TV show's title sequence.

The downside with Zoom is that free group meetings are limited to 40 minutes, otherwise you have to get pro for $20 a month.

Skype is one of the original video-calling programs and, while it is still out there, Brownell said it hasn't kept pace with newer companies that have less video lag and better resolution for video.

There are many other programs out there, but those are the main ones for Brownell.

How to plan a video call:

  • Pick an app or program to use beforehand with your loved ones.
  • Make sure you have it downloaded before the planned call time.
  • Cellphone/laptop checklist:
    • Have a charger handy in case your phone/laptop starts dying mid-call.
    • If you plan a long call, have a spot to rest your phone so you don't have to hold it up.
  • Desktop Checklist:
    • Do you have a webcam?
    • Do you have a microphone? (some headphones have built-in microphones).
    • Since you can't move around as easily as with a laptop or cellphone, do you have what you need nearby?

It might not always work the way you want it to

Technology doesn't always flow the way people want it to.

Brownell spent a long time living in a different city from her husband and they did weekly video chats.

She had some advice for newcomers to the video-chatting world:

"At the beginning it can be a little bit awkward. You're not really sure if the technology is working. Sometimes you have a lag on the call. Sometimes you have technical issues where the connection is funny and then all kinds of things can happen," she said.

"Those bumps are definitely normal and they're the kinds of things that once you kind of get used to it you just laugh off these technological glitches and you get more used to the technology and it can really bring you closer together with your family and friends."

Got the hang of it?

Once you're feeling comfortable and a bit more bold with your video-chatting capacity, there are a few perks to the programs you're already using and some new apps and video chatting platforms you may want to explore.

Filters:

  • Some apps on your phone have filters which can prove to be quite entertaining.
  • Zoom has virtual backgrounds that you can add to switch things up.

Houseparty:

  • This app allows you to do group video chat and play games like trivia.
  • You can pass along notes between each other if you don't want the rest of the chat knowing, and to mimic a house party it creates virtual "rooms" for people to chat in.

Marco Polo:

  • Send a video message to a friend who can check it and respond whenever they want.
  • Rather than being live, you are able to communicate by video at your convenience.