In this post I’m going to look technologies to make Video Calling a little easier for people not comfortable with technology. Of the four suggestions below all but one are different versions of the relatively new technology category referred to as Home Hubs. A Home Hub is pretty much a tablet except is it meant to stay in your home rather than being a mobile device. This usually means it is plugged in and permanently on, has a decent speaker, usually a better quality camera and microphone (or microphones). Although beyond the scope of this post, Home Hubs main role is as the control centre of a Smart Home. If that is going to be the primary function, rather than video calls, your choice of device might well be different.
Below we will look at the FaceBook Portal, Echo Show, Nest Hub and Acorn. Facebook, Amazon and Google all follow similar strategies with these devices, unlike a standard tablet, home hubs tend to be locked into particular services. You can’t call your WhatsApp contacts on your Echo Show, or Drop in on your friend who used a Nest Hub. So in one sense comparing these devices is somewhat pointless because regardless of the innovative features offered many people will choose one of these devices based on the messaging services supported. That said many of us have multiple accounts and use different services with different people. You might call your Mum on WhatsApp, then chat with a friend on Duo (okay, to be honest I don’t know anybody who uses Duo..). However if one of these devices makes it easier for a loved one to participate in video calls, it could bring an entire family or group to that particular messaging service. The Acorn is not a Home Hub but as we will see should be seriously considered as a user friendly way to get the technophobe in your life more digitally connected.
These support one to one and group video calls through WhatsApp and Messenger (up to 4 on WhatsApp, 8 on Messenger, including yourself). If people are already using these platforms this option might make a lot of sense. Although the Portal uses Amazon Alexa it doesn’t seem to support Alexa calling or the “Drop in” feature. The devices themselves look really good. Prices range from about €150 for the 8” and TV to about €350 for the 15”. The 15” in particular seems to be a very innovative design and offers good sound. More than any of the other devices we are looking at in this post the FaceBook Portal seems to be designed with video calling in mind. All the devices have multiple microphones so you can be clearly heard anywhere in the room, an AI powered wide angle camera that uses facial recognition to follow you, zoom in on particular people or zoom out to cover a whole group and good quality speakers.
15” Facebook Portal, 10” Portal, 8” Portal. They also do a Portal for TV but I can’t find it available in Ireland
- Access – Voice (Alexa) and Touch.
- Accessibility – High Contrast, Magnification some Touch support but no alternative access like Switch
- Communication – WhatsApp and Messenger
- Requirements – FaceBook or WhatsApp Account, Amazon Account to set up Alexa
Echo – Echo Show
The Amazon Echo ecosystem is well established. Originally just Voice the Echo Show range of devices brought a screen and video calling to the line-up. Amazon offer 3 sizes: 5”, 8” and 10” which are currently £59.99, £89.99 and £219.99 respectively. Video calling is limited to one-to-one on the Echo Show at the moment, using Amazon’s native service or Skype. The Echo devices also offer a “Drop in” feature which can either sound like the perfect solution or a privacy nightmare, depending on the situation. When you “Drop in” on a contact they do not need to answer the call, you just connect to their device. It’s pretty obvious why this might concern people but it’s easily disabled. It could however offer a great way to keep in contact with someone who might have significant access difficulties or perhaps an intellectual disability. To use this feature safely you might want to put the Echo Show somewhere privacy might be less of an issue or positioned in a way where the user has a choice of engaging with the caller or not. It will also be very important to make sure only specific contacts have the ability to drop in.
- Access – Voice (Alexa) and Touch.
- Accessibility – Screen Reader, High Contrast, Magnification some Touch support, on screen keyboard alternative to voice input for Alexa
- Communication – Alexa App or Skype
- Requirements –Amazon Account, Skype Account (to use Skype obviously)
The Echo Show Accessibility is a bit more established than the FaceBook Portal but still lacks alternative input options https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=202158200.
Have a look at this video on using an Amazon Echo Show for easy communication https://youtu.be/CzIjg2Jx8P8
Nest Hub (Google)
Recently rebranded, Google’s Nest Hub comes in a 7” version (€89) and a 10” Max version (although only the 7” seems to be available direct from Google at the time of writing). The Nest Hub of course uses the Google Assistant for Voice input (rather than Alexa) and supports the wide range of Google Home compatible smarthome devices. Unlike the two devices previously discussed the 7” Nest Hub does not have a camera and seems to be more a smarthome hub than a communications device. This means you can receive but not make video calls. So if video calling is a requirement you will need the Nest Hub Max, but even so the capabilities of the Nest Hub Max are still not clear to me. They use either Duo or Meet for video calls, both Google services, but I’m not clear on the availability in our region (Ireland) or whether Meet is available without a GSuite account. If this is clarified the Nest Hub Max would be an attractive option for people already using Google products. Accessibility is a little disappointing however, while it is at least as good at the Echo Show in this respect, it doesn’t seem to benefit from some of the innovative alternative input supports that have come to Google Android devices in recent years. It would have been great to it they had made Switch Access available for example.
- Access – Voice (Google Assistant) and Touch.
- Accessibility – Screen Reader, High Contrast, Magnification some Touch support available through companion app on Android or iOS.
- Communication – Duo or Meet
- Requirements –Google Account, GSuite for Meet?
Acorn – Accessible Tablet
Unlike the three previous ranges discussed the Acorn is not a Home Hub, rather it is an Android tablet with a simplified UI (user interface) suited to those not entirely comfortable with technology. Since that was our primary goal in reviewing home hubs the Acorn is certainly worth a look. Essentially an Android Tablet the Acorn hides away most of the more technical and lesser used features under their specially designed launcher. By stripping Android back to the essentials: Photos, Communication (Voice/Video Calls, Messaging and email), News, Calendar and web browsing we are left with an intuitive piece of technology that is easy to navigate. They also include an extensive help feature with over 30 supporting videos. What sets the Acorn apart is the level of support friends and families can provide users using the companion app. The companion app available on iOS and Android allows non Acorn device users communicate with Acorn users using messages, voice or video. With the full version of the companion app you can also send reminders, install apps or check battery level or location of the Acorn user. There are two versions of the Acorn, the standard Acorn Wi-Fi only version for €360 which includes one year Acorn community membership (€80 a year subsequently) and the Acorn Integrated Mobile Data and WiFi version for €440. This second option include a year’s worth of 4G Data on the Eir network (€260 a year from the second year). This seems like a very good deal and the mobile data will be very useful for those without broadband. Eir coverage in rural areas is patchy to say the least so I would do a few tests before committing to this package. All in all the Acorn is a solid choice particularly for new technology users, families and small groups but might require an additional Bluetooth Speaker/microphone to challenge the devices previously mentioned as a video calling device.
- Access –Touch, stylus
- Accessibility – Simple UI but all the Android Accessibility features available underneath. Not sure how well the UI will work with Switch Access, would need to test
- Communication – Acorn Native Audio/Video or messaging – Third party services also supported
- Requirements –Acorn Community membership