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This big-screen video chat trick will help you cope with staying home

Connect your phone or computer to a big-screen TV for more lifelike conversations.

This big-screen video chat trick will help you cope with staying home
[Photo: LSOphoto/iStock; Joel Mott/Unsplash]

While video chat is no replacement for in-person interaction, it’s also the best we can do as the coronavirus pandemic forces us to stay home.

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I’ve never loved chatting through tiny screens, though. It just feels so distant to hunch over a phone or laptop, staring at a shrunken-down version of whoever I’m talking with. That’s why, over the last week, I’ve made a concerted effort to run video calls through the TV instead. When there’s a life-sized person on the other end, it helps conversations feel more lifelike.

Video calling through your TV does require a bit of hardware that you might not have already, but if we’re going to be stuck at home for weeks to come, those extra pieces might be a worthy investment. Here are four different ways you can get set up for video chat on the television:

iOS and AirPlay

If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can use Apple’s AirPlay feature to wirelessly stream video to the television. For this, you’ll either need an Apple TV ($150 for the HD model, $180 for 4K) or one of the recent AirPlay-compatible smart TVs from LG, Samsung, Sony, or Vizio.

To get started, swipe down from the top-right edge (on all iPads and on the iPhone X or newer) or swipe up from the bottom of the screen to bring up Control Center. Tap on “Screen Mirroring,” then select your Apple TV or AirPlay-compatible television from the device list. Switch to the appropriate input on your television, and you should see your iOS device mirrored on the larger screen.

At this point, you can use FaceTime or any other video chat app as usual. Your iPhone or iPad will still supply the camera and microphone, so consider propping it up against your TV or directly underneath it. That way, you can easily keep an eye on the big screen while looking into your phone’s or tablet’s camera.

Macs also offer AirPlay, so you can use a similar setup to stream your video chats wirelessly—but I recommend a hard-wired connection, as explained below in “Laptops and Cables.”

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iOS and an HDMI adapter

The main downside with AirPlay, aside from the hardware cost, is that it plays audio through your TV’s speakers. If your device is too close, or the TV is too loud, the person you’re talking to will hear their own voice echo back.

For a cheaper approach that works with any modern TV and eliminates the echo problem, use a Lightning-to-HDMI adapter instead. In my testing of Apple’s official $49 Lightning Digital AV Adapter, audio continued to play through my iPad even with video on the television, so it didn’t pick up any echo. You could also try an unofficial adapter such as this $16 one.

Here, the setup is even simpler than AirPlay: Just plug the adapter into an HDMI cable, hook the cable up to the TV, and switch to the appropriate input.

Android and Chromecast

Not an iPhone or iPad user? No problem. You can instead use a $35 Chromecast streaming dongle to mirror your Android phone or tablet onto the television. If you have a smart TV that runs Android TV (such as a recent Sony Bravia set) or a Vizio SmartCast television, those have Chromecast built in, so you don’t need any extra hardware. In both cases, your phone or tablet connects to Chromecast over Wi-Fi for streaming the contents of your display. In my experience, audio still plays through the mobile device, so there’s no echo.

To mirror your screen, download the Google Home app, then find and select your Chromecast-capable device in the main menu. You’ll see a “Cast screen” option at the bottom of the next screen. Again, you’ll want to prop your phone or tablet up near the TV. The biggest challenge here will be to convince your iPhone-using friends to adopt Google Duo instead of FaceTime.

One other thing: Chromecast mirroring will drain your phone’s battery in a hurry, so keep it charged up in anticipation of any video calls.

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Laptops and cables

If all else fails, you can always connect a laptop to your television over HDMI.

Does your laptop have an HDMI port? If so, you’re in luck. Just plug an HDMI cable from the laptop straight into your TV. For newer Macs and Windows PCs with USB-C ports, you can use a USB-C to HDMI cable such as this one.

Once you’re plugged in, press Windows-P on a Windows laptop to switch between display modes. Choosing “Second-screen only” will disable your laptop’s screen while it’s connected to the TV. If you have a 4K TV, you may also want to right-click on the desktop and choose “Display Settings,” then reduce the screen resolution to 1920 x 1080. Otherwise, you could get choppy video as your laptop struggles to handle a 4K picture.

On a Mac, there’s no way to disable your laptop display with a TV or external monitor connected, but you can turn brightness down all the way for a similar effect. If everything seems too small on your 4K TV, head to Apple > System Preferences > Displays, select “Scaled,” then choose the option underneath that says “Looks like 1920 x 1080.”

As with the other mirroring options above, your laptop should be right in front of the TV for the best results—which shouldn’t be too difficult since they’re tethered by an HDMI cable.

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