I love it when my mom uses Facebook Messenger to call and video chat with me using her Facebook Portal device. I can hear her dog, Mocha, barking in the background, and sometimes my niece shows up to say hello, all while I show off my adorable new English bulldog, Rhyis, to the grandma she's never met.
We do this routine regularly from more than 3,000 miles away. She lives in Clarkesville in North Georgia and I'm in San Clemente in Southern California, and for us, it's the next best thing to being together. Although we didn't begin this practice because of the coronavirus outbreak, which has forced throngs of people worldwide to stay at home and practice social distancing to control its spread — this method of reaching out and touching each other virtually is more important today than ever.
I've compiled a list of seven simple-to-use apps and services you can use to help maintain contact with the ones you love and care about no matter how close or far away they are.
Have an iPhone, iPad or Mac computer? You can use Apple's built-in FaceTime app to video chat with any of your contacts (as long as they also use the Apple platform). While it's primarily for video chatting, you also can use it to make audio calls if you're in a spot that has a WiFi or data connection but a poor phone signal. Group FaceTime even allows you to chat with up to 32 people at once and can be used with almost all iOS devices with iOS 12 installed.
2. Google Duo/Hangouts
You can use the Google Duo app on your Android phone, iOS smartphone, tablet or computer to video chat with up to eight of your friends at a time. It uses your phone number and accesses your phone's contacts list to let you start creating groups. Among its most unique features: Knock Knock, which gives users a preview of the person calling by firing up the camera on the other end of the line.
Whereas Google Duo is meant to be much more specialized, Google Hangouts is ideal to use on desktops. It supports messaging and group chats, and has voice and video chat capabilities. It's built into Google+, Gmail, YouTube and Google Voice, and the app is compatible on iOS, Android and online.
3. Marco Polo
This easy-to-use app combines the best of texting, social media and video chats on one platform. If you want to video chat with someone — but can't do so in real time because they have a busy work schedule or live in another time zone — Marco Polo is the app for you. You can send video messages to individuals or groups that they can watch and respond to at their leisure. Marco Polo saves all your video messages — and doesn't limit your video time — so you can revisit past conversations. You also can add fun filters and voice effects to give your friends on the other end of the videos a laugh.
Skype messaging, as well as video and audio calling, was created for both one-on-one and group conversations, and you can use it on your mobile phone; PCs and Macs; Xboxes and Alexa. It's free to send messages, and to conduct audio and video calls with groups of up to 50 people (paying a nominal fee also enables you to call mobile and landline phones or send online text messages). Skype even lets you record, save and share your video calls, and offers live captions and subtitles. It's free to download (for iOS, Android, Windows and Mac) and easy to use. Just establish an account and add your friends to your contacts list.
5. Facebook Messenger
More than 1 billion people have Facebook accounts, so theoretically you can use the Facebook Messenger app to connect with any of them. You can send instant messages, photos or videos, stickers, GIF files, emojis and more. You also can make free WiFi video calls from almost anywhere. Using Facebook Messenger is like using any other instant-messaging app. Simply click or tap on the compose button, select the individual(s) you would like to chat with and then start typing.
6. Netflix Party
If you want to have movie night with the girls, you still can using Netflix Party. It's a free Chrome browser extension you download on your computer. Once you've done that, you just navigate Netflix and pick the movie or TV show you want to watch. To invite friends to join your party, pause your show after it loads and click the red "NP" button. That will give you a unique link to send your friends so they can join your "room." Then you can watch your movie or TV show together — and even talk about it using the platform's chat tool.
If you don't have Netflix but still want to hang out with friends and watch videos online, Watch2gether lets you do just that. Head to the website and just "create a room" (no registration is required) and start watching video content from sources like YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion and SoundCloud. You can also sign up for free and create an online nickname. That way you can start inviting friends to rooms you can create, or join rooms that someone else has started.
Few people had even heard of Zoom before coronavirus. Maybe some of you used it to have teleconferences at work, but surely few of us were using it to stay in touch with family and friends. But now it's become on of the go-to sources for all kinds of online classes, happy hours, social opps, telemedicine and, yes, meetings. And it's free to download a Zoom Meetings license to your smartphone or computer, and that gives you access to an unlimited number of video meetings (which can support up to 100 people), and private and group chats, you know, in case you need all of that.