While nothing can truly replace the in-person hugs, hello’s, high-fives and happy moments, here are 10 great apps, devices and online services to help you stay in touch with your loved ones — while staying safely hunkered down at home.
Tools to help you keep in touch
With a variety of free video chat apps and web platforms available, there are plenty of ways to see and talk to your family and friends. Here are a few we recommend:
- WhatsApp: Available across devices and around the world, WhatsApp is a great way to message, call or video chat with basically anyone. And with encryption services built into the platform, you can be sure your communication stays private. However, while making voice or video calls, keep in mind that WhatsApp relies on your cell data if you’re not connected to Wi-Fi. In addition, you can’t call landline numbers with WhatsApp. Download WhatsApp for iOS or Android, or use it on your computer.
- Skype: After creating an account, Skype allows you to send messages, pictures and videos to other Skype accounts. You can also make phone calls to non-Skype contacts, including landline numbers — however, this functionality comes with a fee. Download Skype for iOS or Android, or use it on your computer.
- Zoom: Previously used solely as a business conferencing tool, Zoom has emerged as one of the better video chat hangout options available. With the ability to set fun backgrounds and invite up to 100 people, Zoom is a great option for your virtual birthday parties, family gatherings and happy hours. One downside of Zoom is the 40-minute time limit included with a free account. But with Pro plans running around the same price as your monthly Netflix bill, you might consider forking over a few bucks to extend your video chats beyond an hour. Download Zoom for iOS or Android, or use it on your computer.
- Google Hangouts: Most people have a Gmail account these days, and anyone who does can start and join a Google Hangouts video call. The advantage of Google Hangouts is that there’s no time limit to your video chat. The downside, however, is that only 10 participants are allowed in the video chat room. Download Google Hangouts for iOS or Android, or use it on your computer.
Devices that make loved ones feel closer
Apps and web platforms are a great way to stay in touch, but some in-home devices can make connecting with loved ones even easier — and feel even more personal. Here are some devices you can buy to help your loved ones feel nearby:
- Alexa devices: The Echo Show is Amazon’s smart display that allows you to do a lot of things around your home — including having a hands-free video call with other Echo Show owners, or anyone who has the Alexa app on their smartphone. The Echo Show can also cycle through your favorite photos — helping you feel close to your loved ones throughout the day. In addition, all Echo devices can be used for an Alexa Drop In, which is a voice call option that operates similar to walkie-talkies, but between Echo devices in different homes.
- Facebook Portal: As Facebook’s very own smart display, Facebook Portal can be used to video chat with your Facebook friends via Facebook Messenger. While concerns of letting Facebook even deeper into our lives surfaced when Facebook Portal was first released, it’s now considered one of the easiest smart displays to use for video chatting. And, with the option to wear virtual masks and set goofy backgrounds, Facebook Portal can be fun for the whole family. Since Facebook owns WhatsApp, you can also use your Facebook Portal to make and take WhatsApp video calls.
Online services that help you hang out
Video chatting is great, but sometimes you want to just do something with your friends instead of just talking. Maybe you’ve figured out a good system for playing a board game or some other fun activity through a video call, but here are some online services that can help you feel like it’s just another day hanging out with your buds:
- Netflix Party: By synchronizing playback and offering a group chat feature, Netflix Party is a free Google Chrome extension that makes watching movies and TV with your friends easy and fun again. Keep in mind you can only use Netflix Party in Chrome browsers on desktops and laptops. If you have a Chromecast device, you may be able to cast your screen to your TV.
- Steam: With more than 30,000 video games, 90 million active users and social features like friends lists and in-game message and voice chat capabilities, Steam is one of the best online gaming services. With no subscription fee and online multiplayer games ranging from as little as $5 to more than $60, it’s a great option for friends who want to play a game together — no matter your budget. Steam also offers Remote Play Together, which allows you to share a game you’re playing at home with up to four friends remotely. This feature streams video, audio and voice between players, making it even easier to hop on and play with your friends.
- Collaborative Spotify playlists: Connecting with friends can also be as simple as enjoying music together. If that sounds like you, Spotify allows you to create a playlist together. Through a collaborative playlist, you and your friends can add and listen to all of your favorite songs anytime, anywhere. The best part is that contributing and listening to a collaborative playlist doesn’t require a Premium account. However, those with free accounts can only add songs via a computer. Download Spotify for iOS or Android, or use it on your computer.