Tech Savvy: Lots of ways to stay connected even while apart

In this period of social distancing there are still ways to not be isolated using technology and video calls to connect whether that's as a family group, as a workplace, business or nonprofit organization. The silver lining may be that there may have never been so many ways to stay in touch with video calls and conferencing.

A screen shot of one of the popular options as people work remotely is Zoom. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

It’s a repeated phrase these days — social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation.

And whether that means family spread out across the distances, groups of friends, or business meetings, there are ways to connect and keep in touch.

With the coronavirus pandemic, being connected may be more important than ever, even if as family members you have been more likely to talk on the phone, now you may want to reach out and see each other. There are multiple ways to do a video call with an individual or with a group of friends or family, or you can create something for work, your tennis club, or for your nonprofit group to stay connected — and a lot of it is available for free and available on your computer.

There are lots of options from a smartphone or tablet. You do need a computer or laptop with a camera to be visible yourself, but for older models there are still options to simply add a small camera and connect it to the computer. There are tutorials to help new users get used to the programs.


Apple users can use FaceTime for conversations. If you’ve used it for one-on-one calls, that may be more recognizable. But there is a Group FaceTime as well. As with most of the options, you need the app. In FaceTime, tap the plus sign on the top right and add names or numbers of the people you want in the group call. You can also add people from your contacts list. Then tap video (the camera symbol) for a video call or audio for an audio call. The faces of your group will be spread across the screen. This works even with your smartphone with little boxes or tiles popping up across the phone screen with the people on the call. The person speaking moves to the front or becomes more prominent. Apple notes you can invite up to 32 participants to a Group FaceTime. There isn’t a cost.



Zoom offers meeting plans for businesses, organizations, but it works for one-on-one conversations and for groups of friends as well. There is a free version and several paid options. The Baxter City Council was loading Zoom for its meeting option this past week.

The free Zoom will allow you to host up to 100 people without a limit on the number of meetings, but there is a time hook. The group meetings had a 40 minute limit, but Zoom removed that limit during the pandemic. One-on-one sessions are unlimited. You can share what’s on your screen with others on the call.

The pro version is for small teams with basic features the cost is $14.99 per month/host with a meeting duration of 24 hours. A host is the person who schedules meetings and starts and controls the settings.

One of the nice parts of Zoom is that you see all the participants in a tile format continuously and speakers don’t jump forward and back, which can be annoying if you aren’t disciplined about speaking one at a time.

The business version is aimed at small and medium businesses with a minimum of 10 hosts, with extra options at $19.99 per month/host. The number available for the group meetings increases to 300 and has options for more. Extras include cloud recording transcripts.

The pro and business options have add-on plans.

The enterprise option is for large enterprise version has a minimum of 50 hosts and allows for 1,000 participants and unlimited cloud storage along with other discounts for webinars and Zoom Rooms.

Bloomberg reports, “Demand for Zoom's software, which facilitates virtual conferences and web meetings, is exploding as the spreading virus is prompting office closures and meeting cancellations. Business conferences, college courses and even children's playgroups have all moved online as people worldwide heed calls to stay away from one another.”


Google Hangouts

Google also offers options, including free ones, like the Hangouts, with video conferencing. Hangouts is actually a standalone product and has its own app to download. Video calls are free with up to 10 contacts. When we’ve used this, the speaker did jump to the front. But we moved call participants to their own screens and eliminated that option, but there may be many more options to explore than time allowed.

Messages include photos, videos, maps, emojis and stickers for more communication options.

There is a version designed for business video meetings called Hangouts Meet and is included in G Suite and G Suite for Business.

Group chats can include up to 150 people.

It works with Apple and Android and integrates with the calendar or email invitation or a call to a contact on Hangouts. It can work from a smartphone or laptop or desktop.


Microsoft’s product Skype offers audio and video calling for one-on-one and group chats. It works with smartphones, PC, Xbox and Alexa. It includes call recording and subtitles, screen sharing and smart messaging. Calls can include up to 50 people. It’s free. You can pay more to do more and pay as you go.

Cisco Webex

This is a California-based company that has web conferencing and video conferencing and you may have noticed it a lot on cable news lately as more and more interviews are done remotely.

The company has more info on its website, with Webex essentials and information based on the people who are new to working from home.


Costs are free for personal use, which has been updated and can add as many as 100 people in each meeting, an increase from 50. Meeting time limits have also been removed to now allow participants to meet as long as they want instead of a 40 minute limit.

There are paid versions have optional add-on features.

For $13.50 a month per host, a starter group is designed for small teams with up to 50 participants in each meeting. Features with a paid account include transcript and cloud storage among other options.

For midsize teams a plus account option is $17.95 per month per host with all the starter features and the ability to host up to 100 participants and customize a Webex site URL as well as get 24/7 customer support among other features.

The business one for large teams and businesses is $26.95 per month per host with more cloud storage, branding, customizations and up to 200 participants.

Amazon Alexa

The Echo Dots can make phone calls on Alexa-enabled devices by saying, for instance, “Alexa, call mom” and then verbally saying answer or hang up when done. An Echo Show allows video calling with a smart display. The video calls can be made using compatible Echo devices, the Alexa app or Skype.

Portal with Facebook

In some cases, a device may provide you with what you are looking for — like Portal, a device from Facebook that offers video calls. Portal notes it will connect three contacts on WhatsApp, six on Workplace and up to seven on Messenger with people joining on a smartphone, computer or tablet even if they don’t own a Portal themselves

Conference calls

There are conference call options, paid and free or with free trials, such as GoToMeeting, RingCentral, Vonage, Grasshopper and more. Web conferencing allows people to see each other and share documents with screen sharing, depending on the service.


This isn’t an exhaustive list as there are no doubt more and perhaps new entries into the options as well as people look to connect across social distancing and to help keep the coronavirus from spreading.

As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to reflect Zoom's decision to remove its 40-minute limit from its free accounts during the pandemic.

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at
Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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