Traveling over the holidays is difficult. Roadways and airports are crowded, the weather can be uncooperative, and trucking a family across country may exceed your budget. Much as it pains you, it’s often easier to just stay home. But that doesn’t mean that you have to entirely lose touch with your friends and family during these special days. While a phone call is a fine way to issue a quick “Hey, fruitcake, thanks!” to a not-entirely-beloved second-cousin, when you want something stronger and more heartfelt, turn to video. It’s a great way to show-and-tell and, better yet, it can be done for free. Here’s how.
Getting some FaceTime
If you have a reasonably modern iOS device (running a just-as-reasonably-modern version of iOS) your have the tools you need to make and receive FaceTime video calls. Specifically, you must use an iPhone 4 or later, iPad 2 or later, iPad mini, or iPod touch 4th generation or later.
To configure FaceTime on an iOS device tap Settings > FaceTime and make sure the FaceTime switch is in the On position. On this screen you’ll see any phone numbers and email addresses that can be used to contact you over FaceTime. (You can also choose how caller ID will display your information on a device you call.)
To place a call, tap the FaceTime app on the Home screen and tap on a contact or enter a name, email address, or phone number associated with someone’s FaceTime ID. You’ll see that you can place either a video or audio-only call just by tapping the appropriate tab.
On a Mac the FaceTime app is bundled with recent versions of the Mac OS. Unlike with the iOS version, all FaceTime configuration is handled directly within the FaceTime app. Just launch it and you should see the image captured by your Mac’s built-in camera (or an attached webcam if your Mac lacks a camera.)
To access your FaceTime settings—including the associated Apple ID and contact numbers—choose Preferences from the FaceTime menu. To place a call, just enter a name found in the Contacts app, an email address, or a phone number associated with an Apple ID. As with the iOS version, you can place audio as well as video calls.
If you know the person you’re calling has an iPhone, try using their phone number as the first point of contact as it will almost certainly work with FaceTime. Otherwise, if they’re using some other variety of FaceTime-compatible device, strongly urge the people you wish to speak with to provide you with their iCloud (or .mac) email addresses. As long as they have FaceTime enabled you should be able to use that address to reach them.
Should you wish to capture a particularly meaningful call you make on your Mac, you can do so with the help of Ecamm Network’s recently released $30 Call Recorder for FaceTime. It couldn’t be easier to use. After you install it, when you launch FaceTime you’ll see a small Call Recorder palette. With a call in progress, click the red Record button and you’ll capture the call’s audio and video in split screen as a movie playable on all your devices.
The scoop on Skype
Skype is the free, cross-platform audio/video chat client that is both the friend and frustrating foe of podcasters and businesses everywhere. When it works, it’s an amazing tool. And when it doesn’t, it’s maddening with its distorted audio and frozen images. But, again, it’s free, it’s available on all worthy desktop and mobile platforms, and, unlike FaceTime, it supports more than two participants if you use it with your Mac.
To use Skype for video chatting, everyone participating in the call must have a Skype account, which can be had by visiting Skype’s website. If you plan to lead the call, be sure to add your family and friend’s Skype IDs by clicking Add Contact and entering their information. (You needn’t do this with each Skype app you use. Skype keeps track of your contacts and automatically populates your contacts list when you log into your Skype account.) If you don’t have a friend’s contact information you can try searching for it. When you find it, send a message that you’d like to be added to that person’s contacts list.
To create a group call within the Mac app, just choose File > New Conversation and in the window that appears, choose contacts from the list that appears. Click the Add button and then choose to place a video or voice call. (You can add other participants later by clicking the Add Contact button.)
Ecamm Network has a Call Recorder for Skype as well. If you’d like to capture your conversation, pungle up the $30 they ask for it.
Skype on an iOS device is more limited in that you can’t start a group video or voice call, although you can participate in a group video call (but with audio only on your end).
Hanging out with Google
Google has its video chat service as well, in the form of Google Hangout. In order to participate, everyone must have a Google+ account (a simple Gmail account won’t do). It’s not difficult to get as all you have to do is sign into your Gmail account with your web browser and Google shoves you toward Google+.
Once everyone has their Google+ account, you can start a conversation in a couple of different ways. If you have an iOS device, download the free Hangout app from the App Store. Launch the app, sign in with your Google email address and password, and add your contacts. Then tap the Hangouts button, tap the New Hangouts button, and start choosing contacts for the hangout. Unlike with Skype you can host a group video chat on an iOS device.
On a Mac you use a web browser. The interface is similar in that you click on a Start a Video Hangout link at the bottom-right of the window. If this is your first time using Google Hangout you’ll be prompted to install the Google Voice and Video plugin. Do so and then allow the plugin to do its job (you should see a sheet that asks you to trust the plugin).
Start a video chat and then click the Invite People button that appears. In the Send Invite As field enter the email addresses of those you want to chat with. They’ll receive your invitation and, by clicking a link, can join the chat. Alternatively you can copy the permanent link provided to you and then text that to your friends and family.
The advantage Google Hangout has is that most people have a Gmail account, it supports group chatting, and it can run from a web browser, which means that as long as your loved ones are planted in front of a computer with a webcam, they needn’t download, install, and configure an app.
A time of togetherness
Hanging out virtually isn’t the same experience as being together in person. Sometimes it’s unavoidable and undesirable. In other cases, it’s entirely avoidable but you’ve discovered that too much togetherness leads to inharmonious holidays. Regardless of why you’ve chosen this path, it’s one that can lead to a richer experience and can encourage similar interactions throughout the year.
Chris has covered technology and media since the latter days of the Reagan Administration. In addition to his journalistic endeavors, he's a professional musician in the San Francisco Bay Area.