If you’re thinking about a virtual visit with mom on Mother’s Day (May 10th in the U.S., if it’s not on your calendar), you should start preparing now to avoid the pitfalls of last-minute technology choices and glitches. Group FaceTime might seem like the obvious answer for an Apple-centric family—whether that’s just you and your mom (or moms), or you, mom, and several members of your family.
But Group FaceTime’s hardware limitations, interface choices, and poor performance put it third in my list of recommended services. It can be fine one on one, and I explain more below. But for more than two people, it’s a mystifying experience.
The top ways to video chat with one or more mothers, stepmoms, grandmoms, and mothers-of-your-grandchildren in your life are Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime, in that order.
The reason? The first two work across every major operating system, including in many browsers without installing a plug-in, are generally resilient to failure, and require as little as a URL to join. The watchwords for videoconferencing across a family are simplicity and compatibility—especially with sometimes quite old operating systems.
Never assume a mom isn’t technically adept, although mothers of older generations may have had fewer opportunities to get comfortable with the latest gear. And the most experienced young people may lose their hair prematurely tearing it out while wrestling with technology that’s supposed to just work. Let’s go through the details.
Zoom wins on nearly all counts
Summary: A little involved for the call’s host to set up, but it’s easy for any family member to join by clicking a URL on nearly any hardware or browser.
There’s a reason Zoom exploded from a business video offering with a modest audience to the videoconferencing tool that 300 million people on average now use every day globally: ease of use.
You can set up a Zoom videoconference with just one person having a free account with the company. No one else needs to have an account, or even download software on the desktop—with the right setup, you can allow plug-in free participation from all major desktop browsers. Mobile devices do need to install a free app.
Up to 100 people can be in a single free Zoom session—your family likely doesn’t need to conference nearly that many.
To use Zoom, the process works like this in brief; a longer step-by-step is below:
Create a meeting
Send out a URL.
Family members click the URL to join.
Zoom is extremely resilient in low-bandwidth situations and has built-in echo cancellation and noise cancellation using computer audio, making it possible to hear people clearly. It also offers a dial-in phone option (audio only) for anyone who can’t get on a computer or mobile device. (Zoom limits dial-in phone calls for free-tier accounts during heavy usage times, and that could happen on Mother’s Day.)
Native software is available for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows, as well as several flavors of Linux. (It works as far back as Mac OS X 10.7, Android 5, iOS 8, and Windows XP SP3!)
People can also join from a browser. There’s no plug-in to install. Instead, Zoom relies on web standards that allow streaming video alongside mic and camera input. Mac users need Safari, Firefox, or Chrome; Windows users can rely on Chrome, Edge, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. As with desktop operating systems, Zoom works with even ancient browsers, like Safari 7, released in 2013.
While Zoom normally has a 40-minute limit on meetings of three participants or more starting from a free account, it is waiving that—via a sponsored promotion with a consumer brand—from midnight Central Time on Saturday, May 9, through 11:59 p.m. Central on Sunday, May 10.
Here’s the setup procedure you can carry out ahead of time to make it easiest for everyone to join. This assumes you are the host, which is the person who creates a meeting that other people can join:
If you don’t have a free Zoom account, visit zoom.us and create it.
Log in to your Zoom account in a web browser.
In your account settings, make sure that “Show a ‘Join from your browser’ link” is turned on. In new accounts, it’s disabled. Without this option, people have to download an app to join a meeting.
Install a Zoom app, launch it, and log in.
When you want to start the meeting, launch the app, click New Meeting. In a desktop app, click the “i” (info) button and click Copy URL; in a mobile app, tap Participants > Invite > Copy URL. Now you can send around the URL, which embeds an automatically generated and required password.
I suggest instead of creating a meeting on the spot, you schedule one, which lets you provide details in advance:
In the meeting section of your account, click Schedule a New Meeting. (You can also do this in an app.)
Enter meeting details, like naming the meeting. You can change the automatically generated (and required) password to something fun, like “momsday”. Nobody should need to enter it, however.
Click Save and the meeting is created.
In the page that appears, click Copy the invitation and a dialog appears with the meeting details. Click Copy Meeting Invitation to put that on the clipboard.
In texts or emails or other transmissions to family, paste those details. You can also include it in the URL field of a calendar event if you have a shared family calendar. Family members need as little as the URL to join as it includes an encrypted form of the password.
Encourage people to download the app ahead of time via Zoom’s download page if they have the ability and interest to do so. But tell them all they need to do is click the URL at the schedule time.
When it’s time to have the Mother’s Day call:
Remind people as it gets closer if you know people need reminders.
Arrive early as host, so you can be sure your audio and video is set up.
Start the meeting early.
Zoom uses a Waiting Room approach, so as people try to join, you will see them in a list and can click to admit them, either one at a time or all at once. (This prevents unwanted attendees if one of your family members managed to post the URL somewhere!) You can disable this when scheduling a meeting, or you can disable it after you start the video chat by clicking the Security button and select Enable Waiting Room if it has a check next to it.
Suggest to people using desktop native apps that they use Grid View, accessible via a button they can click in the upper-right corner of the app. That lets them see everyone on the call at once. The default Speaker View is used in mobile apps, in browsers, and available in desktop apps, and shows the currently speaking person and between four and nine thumbnail videos of people who spoke recently.
Zoom’s key limitations for groups is that family members with Firefox or Safari on the desktop who can’t or don’t want to install the app (or install the Chrome browser), Zoom can’t handle audio with its web apps for those browsers. Participants have to use the dial-in number.
Some family members may have heard about “zoombombing,” where outsiders jump into a meeting and spew obscenity or stream pornography. That’s only a concern if the URL including the password or the meeting ID number plus the password are shared. Because Zoom now requires a password on meetings, people can’t guess your meeting ID and try to join.
Zoom had a lot of coverage of security issues—including this exhaustive article I wrote—which it’s fixed as they were disclosed. Security experts agree that only highly privileged conversations should be kept off Zoom for now, like legal or medical ones or ones involving corporate trade secrets.
If you want to ensure a longer meeting and have guaranteed dial-in phone access, you can pay $19.95 for one month’s single-host service, which lets you bypass those limits. And isn’t mom worth it?
Skype is second best
Summary: While less backwards compatibility and lacking a desktop grid option that shows more than five participants at once, Skype is easier to set up and family members can join with a click.
Skype has been around far longer than Zoom, and its audio and video conferencing used to be among the best. As the product shifted across two companies (it’s now owned by Microsoft) and moved towards serving a business audience, it’s become less friendly to the average user. But a recent change overcomes some of that.
I rank it lower than Zoom for a family video chat because:
Skype only allows up to four other people on screen in its desktop grid view (the last four to speak), which can be too few with bigger families.
There’s no dial-in option, which may be important in a family with mixed technological capabilities.
In my experience with audio and video Skype calls—even with a gigabit internet connection at my home—the service has great difficulty in keeping video quality solid and audio synced up. This throws off conversations.
However, Skype has less overhead in setting up a video chat and starting a call.
Skype allows up to 50 people to participate by audio and video. Participants may have a Microsoft Live account which they use to sign into in a copy of Skype, or can join via a URL created by someone signed into an account, including a nominal host. Video chats may be of any length. (You can set up a sort of scheduled event, a call reminder, but it only effects logged-in Skype users you’ve already invited to the chat.)
Like Zoom, it has a fair amount of backwards compatibility with older hardware. You can use macOS 10.10 or later, iOS 10 or later, Android 4 or later, various Linux flavors, and Windows 10 as well as earlier versions that support DirectX 9.0 or higher. Browser support is more limited than Zoom: Chrome across all desktops and Microsoft Edge for Windows.
As with Zoom, too, I suggest encouraging people to download a native desktop or mobile app well ahead of time to be prepared.
While Skype has a few ways to create a video chat, I suggest using the Meet Now feature added just a few weeks ago. It’s easy to create and join.
Here’s how to set up a Mother’s Day call for success. Start by creating a free Microsoft Live account if you don’t already have one, downloading a native Skype app, and signing into the app.
To set up a video call immediately or for the future:
Click the Meet Now button. Skype creates a new Meet New session with its own URL.
Here’s the trick: You don’t need to start the meeting. Instead, copy the URL and send it to family members along with the time you’ve all agreed on. Click the X and the full-app mode ends, but the Meet Now call appears in your Recent Chats sidebar.
If you want, invite people with Live accounts to the call. Click the Meet Me item in the sidebar and then click the add participants button in the upper-right corner.
You can rename the call by clicking the Meet Now title at the top of the main view, and then clicking the pencil (Edit) icon to the title’s right in the pop-up dialog. That’s also where you can find the URL again and schedule a reminder.
When the time comes for the call:
In Skype, find your event in the sidebar and click it.
Click Start Call.
Participants can click the URL to join in any of the supported methods above for both audio and video without an account.
To swap between a solo active speaker and grid view, click or tap the grid or view button depending on the app.
Group FaceTime as a last resort
Summary: Because it’s built in to all Apple devices, it’s a single click to join despite its drawbacks.
I sound terribly down on Group FaceTime, which allows up to 32 participants at once, but it’s from experience, not cynicism. You start with a number of limitations:
Everyone in your family has to be using a Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to join.
Support dates back only as far as iOS 12.1.4 and macOS 10.14.3 or later (February 2019).
Some hardware on which you can install iOS 12 can only join with audio.
You can’t join from a browser or use a URL to join a session.
But the worst element I find is one that Apple advertises as a feature: the video streams of other people shift around and grow and shrink depending on when the last person spoke and for how long. It’s like a lava lamp for video thumbnails. You can double-tap individual video streams to have them take center stage.
As my wife put it when our family did an in-house four-person test run, “I fear mom might lose her mind.”
(Apple seems to agree. According to those with access to the just-released iOS 13.5 beta, Apple added a feature in Settings > FaceTime under Automatic Prominence where you can disable the Speaking option to keep faces from strobing.)
The hardware requirements can also cause frustration. In addition to the minimum iOS requirement noted above, video participation varies depending on iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch model—otherwise, a device can only use audio. An iPhone 6s (2016) or later qualifies as does an iPad Air 2 (2014), but the 5th generation iPad is required for video (2017) and a 7th-generation iPod touch (2019). Read the hardware list carefully to avoid disappointment.
The key advantage is that it’s easy to set up a call:
Launch FaceTime on any Apple OS.
In iOS and iPadOS, first tap the + (plus) sign. In all versions of FaceTime, start typing names to add multiple recipients or enter phone numbers. Valid FaceTime matches appears.
Tap or click the Video button. The call begins.
There’s no need to schedule anything or provide a URL. Participants in the call receive an alert on their various devices of an incoming call and can choose to accept it and video begins if their device qualifies.
You may be tired of group video calls, but it can be good for family unity
Family events are sometimes fraught, but when they’re desirable or at least necessary we’re in a difficult period of time to make them meaningful. A video chat with the mom or moms in your life can be a way to connect with her or them—and with family.
My mother passed away over a decade ago, and I celebrate her life by connecting with my stepmother, sister, sisters-in-law, and mother-in-law. What I know from all of them is that there’s nothing like avoiding adding frustration to a mother’s life on Mother’s Day.
Update: Article adds the unlimited meeting time on May 9 and 10 that Zoom announced on May 8.