Video chats in private can be fun, especially on a big-screen TV. The solutions from Apple, Amazon and Google, and the necessary additional hardware at a glance.
For a long time, face-to-face private screen communication was almost exclusively in the science fiction field, despite analogue video telephones, ISDN videophones or Skype. It was only through the pandemic that people got so used to looking at the camera that they use video chats to maintain personal contacts.
So it is convenient that Amazon, Apple and Google have long been offering platforms designed for private video chats. They set the technical hurdles to lower so that people who do not have to deal so intensively with the technology in their day-to-day work – or who want to close their business notebooks – also get a chance. In addition, the services come with their hardware and can also be triggered by voice.
In this article, we will first introduce the services of Amazon & Co. and then explain how you can use them for a relaxed chat experience, even on the TV in the living room. Because sitting comfortably on the sofa is twice as much fun with Family & Friends.
Amazon shows what is possible in terms of digital contact maintenance with its nameless communication system, which is in the smart speakers with Alexa and the displays of the Echo Show series. This enables you to make video calls and digitally link small rooms via the network.
If you still live wall to wall, a few noises are often enough to recognize: “Grandpa is awake and is already making a cup of coffee.” It is precisely this kind of social closeness that the system tries to reproduce. If the sensors detect movement in a room or speak to one of the Amazon speakers directly, the system sends a message to the linked remote station. This gives you an indication that something is moving on the other side. A video connection can now be established directly on demand. You can say “Hello” for a moment when Grandpa is bustling around in the kitchen. Instead of just ringing the doorbell, the Echo Show loudspeaker immediately activates its camera and delivers an artificially pixelated image for a few seconds, clearing up.
Important to know: The option is only available if both sides have explicitly agreed, and of course, you can block the digital proximity by pressing the mute button or pushing the camera cover on the receiving device.
Two of the € 75 intelligent speakers in the Echo Show series are sufficient to set up such a video bridge between remote locations. This means that simple video telephony (Call XYZ) is also possible; Amazon calls the described direct listening or looking in “Drop-In”.
Setup is straightforward when both devices are assigned to the same Amazon account. Amazon assumes that all account devices are allowed to communicate freely with each other and activate drop-in by default. Suppose you name one of your intelligent displays with the name Grandpa’s Grandpa’s workshop. In that case, you only have to connect the device to your grandfather’s WLAN on-site, and you can also use voice commands to check that everything is going well from a distance.
If you want to establish communication with a device that is assigned to a different account, the hurdles are higher. The configuration is done via the Alexa app available for iOS or Android. The Devices tab takes you to a list of all linked speakers, displays, tablets or Fire TV instances (“Echo and Alexa”).
The Communication item must be activated to be able to accept and make simple video calls. Via the separate item you can then specify whether devices outside your household can also access your device. To do this, select the option Only contacts with permission.
Next, you have to add the desired contact in the Alexa app if you have not already given access to the address book when installing it. The tab Communication leads to a list of all contacts. First, you have to mark the desired contact as a favourite and then explicitly allow “Drop-In”. The seemingly cumbersome procedure ensures that no uninvited guests drop into the living room.
Amazon’sAmazon’s system is also designed for group calls. The desired members must first be brought together in a group via the contact list. A broadcast can then be started by voice command or directly on display by touch.
The contact list is also the entry point to start a drop-in or video call from your mobile phone. You can also establish a connection to the smart speaker or a linked Fire TV device from your mobile device – more on that later.
Apple does not have a brilliant display in the sense of an Echo Show or Nest Hub in its range. Instead, video telephony is possible with other screen devices, such as iPhones and iPads. Apple’sApple’s FaceTime application is best integrated. All you need is an Apple ID, and the app automatically picks up available contact addresses.
With FaceTime, unlike most other communication applications from the store, calls can be set up at the factory using Siri voice commands. This offers similar ease of use as with the solutions from Amazon and Google. If the iPhone or iPad is parked upright on a charging dock, you have a fully-fledged video station.
A decommissioned device can also be parked for this purpose. For the current FaceTime edition, Apple officially requires the operating system version iOS 10. It is available for all iPhones and iPads released in 2013 or later. In the practical test, we were also able to make great video calls with an iPad 3, made in 2012 and runs with the somewhat older iOS 9.3.6. Such old hardware is available for 50 euros, a dock for 10 euros.
Apple only raises the bar a little higher when group instead of individual video calls are desired. Then at least an iPad Air 2 (2014), iPhone 6s, iPad Mini 4 (both 2015) or an iPad 5 (2017) with iOS 12.1.4 should be used. Older devices also support this iOS version but can then only connect to the group switch via the audio connection. On all models mentioned, FaceTime calls can be started contactless with “Hey Siri” commands. Older devices must be connected to a power source. But that is given as a place to set up a loading dock.
FaceTime is limited to traditional video calls. These can be carried out from both Apple mobile devices and Mac computers. There is no function comparable to Drop-In. The Apple solution is therefore unsuitable as an intercom.
Also Read : Apple Is Getting Colorful Again.
Google’sGoogle’s communication system Duo is little known and, at first, glance seems to be geared only towards smartphones. The same name is available for Android and iOS, and Duo can also be accessed via browser at duo.google.com. With Google Meet, the group has another communication app on offer, which works according to the conference room principle and is intended for business use.
Ironically, there is a crucial gap in the intelligent displays: Google’sGoogle’s Nest Hub is only available in this country in the 7-inch version without a camera. Big brother Nest Hub Max with a camera didn’t make it across the pond. If you want to use Duo on a compact device, you have to resort to alternatives. There are, for example, Lenovo or Archos, since Google, unlike Amazon and Apple, also opens its video system to third-party providers.
To use Duo, you need a Google account. The app accesses the contacts stored there, and you can start right away. Google is the only provider that also enables convenient video chat directly on selected smart TVs. Devices with Android TV as the operating system, such as those offered by Philips or Sony, have USB sockets and the necessary webcam drivers on board. With a standard model such as Logitech’sLogitech’s C920 HD and the Duo app from the Playstore on the smart TV, the television can be used for relaxed family chat.
TV Chat With Alexa
Now, the old television will not be dumped straight away because of the lack of a chat function. Fortunately, there are retrofit solutions to make older devices fit for living room chat – incidentally, the Skype clients found in some TVs no longer work.
If you want to use Google Duo on TV, you can do so with the current Chromecast HDMI dongle with Google TV for 70 euros. The TV stick retrofits the Smart TV surface and enables the Duo app to be downloaded. The only problem: It has no connections for a webcam or keyboard.
But that can be solved because its USB-C socket is not only used for power supply, you can also connect a USB-C hub. The copies with their power supply and USB-A socket for the webcam should include all work. By the way, if you have poor WiFi reception at the TV location, you can also try a USB-C dock with RJ45.
A USB-C hub from Anker with an active power supply helped our Chromecast to the required USB-A socket. However, the performance of the Chromecast power supply was not sufficient to operate the stick, hub and webcam at the same time. However, among the smartphone power supplies that are flying around, a sufficiently strong specimen should quickly be found; otherwise, further experiments with other USB-C hubs or fast-charging power supplies are required. In the end, there is a little more hardware behind the TV, but Google Duo runs smoothly on the TV.
Retrofitting with the Magenta TV Stick from Telekom (50 euros) is a little easier because it has already practically integrated a USB-A socket into the cable supplied. You can save yourself the additional hub and connect the camera directly – the included power supply was sufficient in the test.
In terms of the user interface, however, the Telekom stick is not the first choice, as the magenta TV interface is in the foreground, and the Play Store can only be reached via detours. While you can save the Duo app as a favourite on the Chromecast’sChromecast’s homepage, you have to fish it out of the Play Store with the Magenta Stick or call it up by voice. Both HDMI sticks and the TV sets with pre-installed Android TV only accept video calls if the Duo app has been started beforehand.
Amazon’sAmazon’s Fire TV Stick would be an inexpensive solution, but there is a lack of software support. Not even the televisions with Fire OS as the operating system can be expanded with a camera. Currently, the relatively expensive Fire TV Cube (120 euros) is the only way to get the chat function on the TV.
This also requires a little extra hardware. The cube comes with a micro-USB adapter to which you can connect Ethernet and another micro-USB device. But the latter port does not pass signals through so that a webcam connected to it is not recognized. This can be remedied by an inexpensive micro-USB OTG adapter – a cable whip with a micro-USB plug and USB-A socket. With it, the camera can be connected without any problems and is immediately recognized by the system. This works even with cheap webcams from Aukey and Licyley.
You won’t find a particular app for video chat. The cube is configured as described above in the Alexa app on the mobile phone. Then video calls or drop-ins can be started by voice command. The deep integration into the Fire OS system also has advantages: The communication service works in the background and is always activated as soon as you receive a video call. So you will be informed during a Netflix or live TV session when someone rings the doorbell. You can accept the call with a click of the remote control or a voice command. The TV solution cannot be selected via drop-in – this is reserved for the Echo Show speakers.
If you want to get Apple FaceTime on TV, you have to tap into the mobile device directly – the Apple TV set-top box alone is not enough, as the FaceTime app is not available for this. For this purpose, the iPhone and iPad can be connected to the TV either via an HDMI adapter or wirelessly via the in-house radio protocol AirPlay. The alliance is particularly easy; many mid-range and upper-class televisions from LG, Samsung and Sony will be AirPlay-enabled from 2018 onwards.
The Apple device and the television must be on the same WiFi network to be contacted. The connection is activated in the control centre of the iPhone or iPad. You can get there with newer iPhones without a home button and with all iPads with the latest iOS by swiping from the top right to the bottom.
On iPhones with a home button, swipe up from the bottom right. Both play partners connect with one finger press on the “Screen synchronization” button and the name of the TV set. Depending on the security setting, you enter an AirPlay code on the iOS device that the television displays. The TV set then mirrors the image and sound output of the smartphone or tablet.
If AirPlay is not installed, the television can be upgraded with the radio protocol via an Apple TV. The streaming box connected via HDMI then serves as a link that transmits the content mirrored by AirPlay from the mobile device to the telly via the HDMI cable. All Apple TV generations since 2010 are eligible, except for the first from 2007.
If AirPlay is not an option, the mobile device can also be connected directly to the television using an HDMI cable. For iPhones and iPads with the Lightning connector, which has been used since 2010, Apple has adapters in its range for a price between 50 and 60 euros. For the iPads with USB-C, cheaper adapters from third-party manufacturers also do the same.
In the practical test, the original Lightning Digital AV adapter was used on an iPhone X. However, it also couples much older devices such as an iPhone 5, iPad 5, iPad Air 1, iPad Mini 1 and successors to the HDMI input of the TV set.
The problem of the camera position remains: iPads clad with fold-out covers can be placed directly in front of the TV stand as a video station. The more compact iPhone is also suitable for mounting on the top of the TV. In a practical test, we attached a mobile device with the flexible ball joint legs of a GorillaPod tripod, including a smartphone clamp bracket for the tripod head. Suitable tripod solutions are available for 15 euros. However, for a stable seat, you should run at least one tripod leg along the front of the TV set. Depending on the frame width, there is a risk that the construct will protrude into the picture.
|Smart displays||Echo Show 5/8/10||–||Lenovo Smart Display, Archos Google Assistant|
|TV sets||–||–||✓ (Devices with Android TV from Sony, Philips etc.)|
|TV retrofit solution||Fire TV Cube||– (only viaAirPlay)||Chromecast with Google TV, Telekom Magenta TV Stick|
|App(Android / iOS)||Alexa(✓ / ✓)||FaceTime(- / ✓)||Duo(✓ / ✓)|
Apple was the first to start with FaceTime but doesn’t seem to have pursued the topic of private video chats any further. Appropriate communication hardware with the Apple logo would look good on the otherwise smoothly functioning system. Because of the support of old hardware, a FaceTime station is an exciting use for old iPads.
Google seems a little lacking the courage to venture into the European market with camera-equipped hardware. The newly introduced Nest Hub also comes without video capabilities. After all, older TV sets can also be converted into chat stations via Duo. The combination of a Telekom TV stick and webcam is available for 100 euros. By opening up to third-party providers and, above all, by the TVs with Duo, you have the widest selection of hardware here.
Amazon currently offers the most uncomplicated package of hardware and software to keep in touch with friends and family via video chat. The digital contact variants cleverly attempt to recreate forms of communication from the real world. This succeeds without any technical hurdles: Anyone can operate an Echo Show – if you are contacted via Drop-In, you have to look into the camera and talk. Even when the pandemic is over, this should remain exciting for some.