Planning a Zoom Thanksgiving?
So you're skipping the travel and planning a virtual Thanksgiving dinner to include the whole family. How to tech it up and keep the family connected? We've got a slew of ideas.
What are you thinking? Put a laptop next to the turkey and move it around during the dinner? Place an iPhone near the cranberries? A webcam by the stuffing?
Esther Yoon, a marketing manager for Zoom, the most popular video meeting service, says consumers will no doubt mostly put their laptops on the table, because "so many homes have them," but that there are better choices.
And remember that lighting is going to be a real issue (if the room is dark, how will people see you virtually?) and sound is of utmost importance because if they can't hear you, the dinner won't be much fun.
So let's go down the list and look at the tools you'll need. All the devices listed work with not just Zoom, but other video meeting services, like Google Meet, WebEx and Microsoft Teams. ICYMI: Zoom has eliminated its 40-minute time limit for free users on Thanksgiving.
1. Virtual Thanksgiving: Video displays
Love or hate Facebook, you can't get over the fact that the Portal is hands down the best video calling device on the market, and nowhere would it be more useful than the Thanksgiving table.
The Portal is a dedicated video unit, designed for video calls that has a fantastic camera that somehow can follow you as you move around. So if you're at the table, you start the dinner conversation, and then move down the row to the other members, the Portal will follow them as well. In other words, you'll have less need to pick the unit up and pass it around.
Portal cut a deal this year with Zoom to allow calls via the most popular video meeting service on Portal. Rival Amazon, with its Echo Show and Google's Nest Hub Max said they too would offer Zoom by the end of the year, but it's yet to happen. (Portal users can also, naturally, do video calls on Facebook Messenger and What's App.)
Yoon says she already bought several Portals and sent them to relatives for Thanksgiving Day. "This really is the perfect device for the holiday," she says. (If you're wary of Facebook tracking you on the device, the social network bends over backwards insisting that it respects your privacy rights on its website. Info is stored on the device, not on Facebook servers. "Portal’s camera does not use facial recognition and does not identify who you are," Facebook says.)
The Portal comes in three sizes: the 8-inch Mini ($129), 10-inch Portal ($179) and giant-size 15-inch Portal+ ($279.) The $149 Portal TV, which connects to the television for video chat, doesn't connect to Zoom.
Getting ready:Here's the tech gear you need to have for a virtual Thanksgiving
As of this writing, Facebook had enough stock to promise delivery by Thursday/Friday, so we suggest you get in orders now.
And as for the rivals, Nest Hub Max, which has a similar camera to the Portal, works with Google's Meet, and the Echo Show can connect to other Echo Show devices or any phone or tablet with the Alexa app.
2. Thanksgiving by tablet
An iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab is a lot easier to pass around the table than a laptop and has a big screen that everyone can see, so it would make a great second choice after the Portal. May I recommend a $20 accessory to make the experience better? A tablet stand will make it easier. You don't want to put your greasy hands all over that shiny iPad, do you? Amazon has plenty of them to choose from. I like this Ontel Pillow, as it could double as a smartphone stand as well.
3. Setting up a smartphone
Let's assume for a moment that you never got around to ordering the Ontel Pillow or the Portal, but that smartphone is sitting in your pocket, ready for Thanksgiving. And you want to use it as your webcam for the Zoom meeting. Not a problem. But make sure it's fully charged first. You can place your phone (in horizontal mode, which puts more video on the screen) in the same Ontel Pillow, or buy an inexpensive table-top tripod for $20 or so. Remember, you'll also need one with a smartphone adapter to fit the phone.
4. Trying a laptop to connect
Yoon suggests placing the laptop at the head of the table, to try to fit in as many of the participants as possible, or to give it its own unique table. Just remember that you'll need to put it atop a set of books to get the webcam camera looking at you, not up your nose.
5. Keep it eye level
This tip goes for all the products, from laptops to phones, tablets and even the Portal. You look best when you're eye level with the digital camera, and that's a hard trick to master, since we're looking at other people on the screen, down below Larry Becker, the author of the "Great on Camera," book, suggests putting sticky notes next to the camera to help train your eye to look that way. A set of books or whatever you can cobble together to stick under the devices can help get the camera, which generally looks up your chin, to come closer to your eyes.
6. What about using the TV?
Wouldn't it be cool if we could Zoom from the dinner table, and see our family members on the TV? No TV we know of has a built-in webcam, but with the addition of just one accessory, Apple's Apple TV streaming box ($179 or $199) you can pull it off. Apple has a really cool feature called AirPlay, which lets you beam images, video and the like from iPhones, iPads and Mac computers to other devices. Connect the Apple TV to your TV via AirPlay to bring Zoom to the really big screen. Several TV manufacturers also have new sets that work with AirPlay as well, including Samsung, LG, Sony and Vizio, and won't require the need for an additional set-top box like Apple TV.
7. Think about the audio, too
Face it, when the whole gang is talking over themselves at the dinner table ("You cut the turkey!), audio can be an issue. One solution: Have a Bluetooth speaker laying around? The Amazon Echo Dot has been the best-selling overall product item for Amazon over several holiday promotions. If you have one at home, why not put it to work to both amplify the sound of your meeting guests, and everyone's voices at the table, per the Dot. It doesn't only amplify the sound, you can make use of the seven microphones in the unit.
8. Don't forget the lighting
And finally, if you're the type who likes to have their Thanksgiving dinner in moody low lights, remember to save that for next year. You'll need to up the intensity to be seen by your guests. Many experts this year recommended buying a Ring light to improve their video calls, but that won't cut it for groups.
The best idea: Pick up some cheap table or wall lamps at Target or Walmart and place them strategically around the room. That should go a long way. Or, have Thanksgiving lunch instead of dinner when the available light is richer.
9. And if you want to cook together...
Thanksgiving dinner is the key moment, but for many, it's the prepping of the dinner itself that is a family highlight. "I always thought that cooking together was the best part of the day," says Yoon. These same devices we've talked about for the dinner table will function just as well in the kitchen. Zoom there as well with a pre-show.
Just remember to have it at eye level, please.