It’s hard to think of one technology that has been more central to our lives over the last year than video calling. And even if we finally get back to “normal” once COVID-19 herd immunity has been achieved, there’s a very good chance that video calling will remain a key tool in both our careers and our personal lives.
But despite the prominence that video calling has gained, it’s remarkable that so few of us do this activity on the largest screens in the house: Our TVs. By “remarkable,” I mean ridiculous. And when I say ridiculous, I’m talking about how virtually none of the tech companies that make smart TVs, game consoles, or streaming media devices (yes, Microsoft, Apple, and Google, I’m looking at you) have stepped up to make video calling on a TV a task that’s as easy (and versatile) as doing it from a computer or smartphone.
There are, however, several ways to get these calls onto a TV. Some are elegant, some are awkward, but none are perfect solutions.
It’s weird to think that Facebook, a company better known for its massive social media and messaging presence than for its hardware, has one of the best ways to video chat on your TV, but it does. The company’s $150 Portal TV is a device that incorporates a webcam and microphones and perches atop your TV. The smart camera can automatically follow you as you move around the room, and built-in apps like Netflix and Spotify make it a handy alternative to other streaming devices.
You can use it to call other Facebook Portal devices, but it also works with other video-calling apps too, like Zoom, BlueJeans, GoToMeeting, or Webex.
Naturally, because it’s a Facebook product, you can also initiate calls over Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. Curiously, even though Amazon Alexa is built into Portal TV, Alexa-based video calls are not supported. Unfortunately, neither are Google Duo/Meet or Skype, which means that as clever as the Portal TV is, it’s not a flexible as we’d like.
Not everyone is going to be comfortable trusting a camera- and mic-equipped product from Facebook, but the Portal TV is a powerful video-calling device for TVs.
Amazon makes several great Fire TV streaming devices, but its $120 Fire TV Cube has one very cool feature that helps it stand out from the streaming device pack: You can buy an inexpensive USB webcam, hook it up to the Cube, and use the device to make free two-way video calls with anyone with an Alexa-equipped smartphone, tablet, Echo Show, or Echo Spot.
You can use Alexa to initiate and end calls, as well as tell her you’d like to turn the camera on or off.
This solution doesn’t have the Portal TV’s fancy tracking smart camera (unless you buy a USB webcam that has this feature) and you’re limited to calling folks with Alexa devices, but if you already own a Fire TV Cube, or you were thinking of buying one, this is yet another benefit to owning one.
Google’s latest streaming media player, the $50 Chromecast with Google TV, is a superb and affordable media machine, but it also has an unadvertised (and unofficially supported) feature: You can buy a USB hub and use it to connect a USB webcam to the streaming dongle.
From there, you simply load the Google Duo app from the Google Play store, and voila, you’ll now be able to make TV-based video calls with any other Google Duo user. The one catch is that, for the moment, the Duo app seems to be restricted to outgoing calls only.
Because the Chromecast with Google TV runs Android TV, this little trick should work with any video-calling app that you can find on the Play Store, and possibly apps that can be sideloaded onto the device, but don’t count on it — as I said, none of this is officially supported by Google.
The TiVo Stream 4K is essentially the same hardware as the Chromecast with Google TV, which means it should also work with a webcam if you buy a powered USB hub and Google Duo.
The Stream 4K runs Android TV, and though it doesn’t have the Google TV interface, it does come with TiVo’s Stream app, which provides a very similar curated and personalized experience for finding streaming content to watch. It also has a fantastic integration with Sling TV, making it an ideal accessory for Sling subscribers.
Speaking of Android TV and Google Duo, the $160 Mecool Now is like a hybrid of the Facebook Portal TV and the Chromecast with Google TV. It perches above your TV (or you can mount it on a tripod) and its built-in webcam and microphone are all you need to make TV-based calls via Google Duo.
It’s also a full-fledged Android TV device, so you can use it to access a wide variety of streaming services like YouTube, but it is not among the very small number of Android TV devices that Netflix has chosen to work with.
Several companies — including Sony, Hisense, and TCL — use Android TV as their smart TV software, which means they too should work with Google Duo or any other video-calling app that can be downloaded from the Google Play Store. However, you’ll need a USB webcam for this to work — and that’s where things get a bit tricky.
Theoretically, almost any USB webcam should work. In practice, those who have tried this solution have had mixed results. Digital Trends reached out to Sony, Hisense, and TCL to find out if these companies maintain lists of webcams that are guaranteed to work with their Android TV models. Sony says they don’t have such a list and neither does TCL, but TCL says it has tested many of these devices and, so far, all have worked just fine. Hisense had not responded by the time this post was published.
Google’s Duo team claims that the app is also available for Samsung’s Tizen OS, which powers its smart TVs, if you have a USB webcam.
This option is heavily Microsoft-centric in that it requires an Xbox gaming console (Xbox One/One S/One X/Series S/Series X), a USB webcam, and a Skype account.
Hooking up a webcam and installing the Skype app from the Xbox store will let you make Skype voice or video calls on the big screen. As far as we know, Xbox consoles don’t support any other video-calling apps.
For years, Tellybean developed software that lets an Android phone act as a wireless webcam for a video call on an Android TV streaming media device or smart TV. And while the company is now defunct, its software still works and you can download it from the Google Play Store for both Android and Android TV devices.
Once it’s installed, the software lets you make free video calls to other Tellybean users. The best part about this solution is that, for Android and Android TV owners, there’s no new hardware to buy. The bad part is that there’s no guarantee the software will continue to work in the future, and there’s no way to use Tellybean with other calling platforms.
If what you really want is to see your callers on a big screen, mirroring the content of your phone or tablet to your TV is by far the most flexible option, even if it’s not as convenient as having an all-in-one calling solution on the TV itself.
If you own an Apple device, AirPlay screen mirroring will let you project the audio and video from an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to an AirPlay-enabled streaming device or smart TV. This used to be something you needed an Apple TV to do, but these days, Apple has licensed its AirPlay tech to a wide variety of manufacturers.
Smart TVs from Samsung, LG, Sony, and Vizio support AirPlay, and Roku just announced the release of its OS 10, which brings AirPlay to a wide selection of its popular streaming media devices.
Alternatively, Google’s casting technology can do the same thing from an Android phone or tablet to an Android TV streaming media device or an Android TV-based smart TV.
You’ll still use the camera and microphone built into your phone or tablet, and there are a number of great accessories out there that let you mount these gadgets on stands, tripods, or clamps with flexible goosenecks.
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