These free video calling platforms can help you stay connected.

By Emily VanSchmus
March 17, 2020

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of scary news and overwhelming information regarding the new coronavirus. And while I know staying inside is the best way to keep myself and others safe, I’ll be the first to admit that social distancing is hard. I miss interacting with my coworkers during the day (we’re all working from home now), I miss going to the gym (it’s closed), and I really miss after-work happy hours with friends. If you’re not used to being alone, sitting in your home with no outside human interaction can take a toll on your mental health

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Luckily, we live in a time where technology can bridge a lot of those gaps for us. Sure, I can’t physically be with my family or friends, but my evenings are now filled with phone calls and video chats. It’s easier than ever to four-way video call with your close circle of friends or host a virtual happy hour with your coworkers when the at-home workday is over. 

Since there are so many ways to stay connected, I put together a list of my favorite video-calling systems that help me stay connected to my friends and family. They’re all free, and many of the platforms have expanded their services in light of the new coronavirus. So whether you’re organizing a happy hour or a morning coffee date, set up a meeting time and start chatting face-to-face. 

Best for Virtual Movie Nights: Netflix Party

Even if we don’t go out to dinner or to happy hour, I normally have friends over in the evenings to watch a movie or catch up on a TV show. Luckily, there’s an easy way to keep having movie nights even while you’re social distancing. Netflix Party is a Google Chrome extension that allows everyone to watch the movie or show at once, and has a chat feature so you can discuss the plot line in real time, just like you would sitting on the couch next to each other.

Best for Virtual Happy Hours: Skype

Download the mobile or desktop Skype app for free and have everyone to make their own cocktail at home before the call begins. Since you can video chat with up to 50 people at once, you can host an intimate happy hour with friends or have an entire virtual party with through the app.

Best for Catching Up with Friends: FaceTime

There are currently more than 100 million iPhone users in the U.S., which means it's easier than ever to connect via FaceTime. The video calling system is built into Apple devices, which means seeing a friend face to face is as easy as making a phone call. You can add up to 32 people to one Facetime call, so there’s no reason not to check in with your whole friend group. FaceTime a friend as you take a lunch break at home, or virtually bring them along as you take a walk around the block. 

Best for Kids: Zoom

The Zoom app functions similarly to Skype, with a time limit of 40 minutes per video call, which makes it a great option for kids with a limited amount of screen time. Zoom also announced this week they’d be expanding free services for teachers and students who are out of school, making it easier than ever to keep up with a normal routine while at home. Help your kids connect to online lessons or help them organize a virtual playdate with friends. 

Best for Calling Family: Facebook Portal

The Portal from Facebook is a relatively new device with the motto “If you can’t be there, feel there,” which is fitting given the amount of people stuck at home right now. The device looks like an iPad, but has built-in Alexa capabilities and a smart camera that will follow you as you move around the room, which makes it ideal for calling grandkids with a lot of energy. You could also use it to chat while you do everyday activities; if you can't have family over for dinner, you can at least talk to them while you prepare your own home-cooked meal. While the device itself isn’t free (prices start at $129), only one person needs to actually have it, since you can use it to make calls to a smartphone or computer through the Facebook Messenger app.

Best for Large Group Calls: Google Hangout

Using the Google Hangouts app is one of the easiest ways to connect with groups of friends or family who have a mix of Apple and Android products. Unlike FaceTime (which is only compatible between people who have Apple products), the Google app can be downloaded on any device. And since it allows you to video or voice call up to 150 people at once, you can add as many people to the chat as you like (although I'm not sure I even have 150 people in my contacts list).

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