Sunday 20 October 2019

Ask Adrian: Our technology editor tackles your trickiest tech problems


Video call: the Alexa Echo Show can dial up family or friends simply by voice command
Video call: the Alexa Echo Show can dial up family or friends simply by voice command
Sony Wena Active
Canon EOS RP
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Question: My mother wants to see her grandson more often. He lives in the North and I've tried setting her up with Skype on her iPad but she can't seem to get the hang of working it. Is there any simpler device out there that she could use to do video calls with her family?


This is a common problem. Even in an age of ubiquitous smartphones, FaceTime and Skype, there are still some left behind who might mostly benefit from something like a video call.

It sounds like your mother may fall into this category. And I must admit, it got me researching a bit - is there a device, like a tablet or a standalone machine, that is genuinely simple to use for a video call, even for someone who feels left behind by today's technology?

Alas, they appear to be few and far between.

Doro, the company that did very well for a while by producing handsets made for late digital adopters, don't have anything in this range.

A Norwegian-made device called 'Komp' that's made specifically for senior citizens fits the bill perfectly - but isn't available for sale yet outside Scandinavia.

I think the closest gadget that might work here is Amazon's Echo Show. If you haven't used one before, Amazon's Echo range of voice-activated smart speakers are mostly designed for listening, especially to the radio or Spotify or answers from Google. But the recently-released Echo Show (€279) goes a lot further, with a decent seven-inch screen that can play videos or news clips or TV episodes as well as all the other stuff on a regular Echo.

But where it could work in your mother's case is that Echo Show devices, with a camera built-in, can make or receive video calls. And instead of having to fiddle about with a confusing screen, to call someone you simply say 'Alexa, call Brian' (or whatever your grandson's name is; 'Alexa' is the default keyword to whirr the device into action, waiting for your command).

Better still, your mother's grandson (or his parents, if he's young), can instigate the call to her - all she has to do is say "answer" and she'll then see and hear her grandson.

In other words, if it's set up right, it could be really easy to use for exactly the thing your mother wants it for.

The cherry on the cake here is that while your mother needs the Echo Show (and Wi-Fi) at her house, the other person only needs a smartphone with the Alexa app.

Someone might say: why can't you just set up FaceTime on an iPad for her?

If her grandson or his parents have an iPhone or iPad, this might work well, in theory. But FaceTime only works with iOS devices, meaning iPhones and iPads (and one or two iPods).

You may be thinking: that's OK - my nephew's family has an iPad so I'll just get my mother one and set it up. OK, fine - but unless you want to be there every time she has a FaceTime call with her grandson, she'll need her own Apple ID. In this case, that probably means you'll have to set one up for her. To get an Apple ID, you need an email address, which means she'll need one of those.

If all of those bits and pieces are in place, you could simply set up an iPad on a stand, permanently plugged in, permanently unlocked. Then your mother - or anyone who still feels very intimidated by the tech we all take for granted - would have a good chance of answering a FaceTime call when it came in on the iPad.

My advice here would also be to find a case with a stand that makes it very difficult to accidentally lower the volume or some other setting simply through an unintended knock.

Are there any other contenders?

Believe it or not, Facebook has made something that could work well in this situation. A few months ago, it launched a machine called the Facebook Portal. It's designed for extended two-way video interaction between people in different places.

And from the looks of it, it's easy to make or take a call. I say 'from the looks of it', because it hasn't been launched in Ireland. So if you want one of these, you'll unfortunately have to get one in the US and bring it back.

Of course, this would also mean that your mother would need a Facebook account. Given the tone of your question, it sounds like maybe she doesn't (even though the figures show that there are more over-65s in Ireland using Facebook now than teenagers).

With some of the suggested solutions above, it may be the case that you will need to co-ordinate a video call using an ordinary phone call beforehand.

Regardless of how straightforward a device may make video calls, your mother may still need to be primed and ready to take a call when it's dialled (or ready to say 'call Brian' when told to do so).

Recommendation: Amazon Echo Show (€279 from PC World / Currys)

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