Text by C. Scott Wyatt

Seeing their cousins on FaceTime brings our daughters joy, especially this holiday season. The girls also love talking to their grandparents.

Family gives our daughters a sense of security. Every child needs a loving and supportive family. Unfortunately, distance separates many families. This year, we’re also separated by the novel coronavirus and the disruptions that this pandemic causes to travel and gatherings.

Thankfully, technology makes connecting with friends and family easier than ever. Adjusted for inflation, connecting is also cheaper than ever.

Many of us remember the days of per minute long-distance phone charges. Calls to family were kept short because the calls were expensive. Today, our cable service phone bundle includes unlimited long-distance calling. Our cellphone plans also include unlimited voice calls.

Hearing family isn’t quite as nice as seeing everyone.

Dozens of popular chat apps include live video for phones, tablets and computers. The two easiest for friends and family are Apple FaceTime and Facebook Messenger. Apple includes FaceTime on every new device, making it ideal if your family members have iPhones or iPads.

FaceTime also has some fun features that our girls enjoy.

The Memoji and Animoji entertain children. The girls can become aliens, animals or even Santa’s elves with the animated avatars. The characters in FaceTime follow your facial expressions. Even the character’s eyes blink when you blink.

Within FaceTime, you can send photos or other files from the device while you chat.

FaceTime is limited to Apple devices, which is why I also recommend Facebook Messenger apps. These work well on almost every device with a camera.

Facebook Messenger includes voice and video chatting. It’s a simple and easy app, perfect for bringing together several family members at once. The only downside is that you need a Facebook account.

Our girls aren’t on social media, and we don’t let them use our accounts. Facebook realizes that parents want to keep children safe, so the company offers Messenger Kids, which lets parents select with whom a child can chat. There’s an option to allow older children to add friends and classmates directly. For now, my wife and I have to approve any chats, even with the grandparents.

I like the controls in Messenger Kids and highly recommend it.

Probably the most entertaining way to gather as a family is with the Portal TV, from Facebook. This $150 device sits under your television and plugs into a standard HDMI port. The Portal uses Facebook Messenger, but with some fun features inspired by FaceTime.

If you want a portable solution you can place in any room, there are three more Portal models with built-in screens, ranging in price from $130 to $280.

The Portal+ might look like a tablet, but it is tailored to video chatting. It’s also much cheaper than a high-end tablet. Using its four directional microphones and face recognition, the Portal+ follows you around as you speak, making it ideal if you need to move about while talking. The screen also rotates from portrait to landscape, which is nice when you have two groups chatting. Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is built in, too. What surprised me most during a demonstration was the sound quality. The Portal+ includes three speakers, with a dedicated bass woofer that adds depth that you don’t often hear from small devices.

My wife and I have used Microsoft Skype, Teams, Google Meet and Zoom for work. I’m teaching via Google Meet this year. These applications are neither kid-friendly nor easy enough for some family members. However, if you have these apps installed, professional conferencing tools offer some unique features.

For fun, you could use one of the festive winter backgrounds available in these programs. Why not chat from the North Pole this year? There’s even a Zoom background that places you within a snow globe. If you use backgrounds in any of these conferencing apps, the video might be choppy with a slower internet connection. Also, Google Meet supports backgrounds only when using the Chrome web browser.

Technology connects us in wonderful and amazing ways. Still, consider the limits of technology, too.

Most families will be taking a lot of pictures and videos using cameras and tablets. Be sure that you save those images and print the important ones.

We keep photo albums and scrapbooks. Our walls display family photos.

With this holiday season unlike any other, consider ordering digital prints and custom items from companies such as Shutterfly and Mixbook.

 

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