What’s the best tablet for video calling grandma?

Guardian Technology 26 Mar 2020 08:00

I want to get my grandma a tablet for easy video calling. She is elderly and needs to self-isolate, and she is already quite isolated after the recent death of her husband. I am not sure which tablet or which program to use. She isn’t very computer literate.

This new Facebook thing looks good but I am sceptical of the brand. Chris

Video calling used to be a futuristic topic. Today, it is readily available on most devices except, oddly enough, smart TVs. If anything, there’s a plethora of services, and I haven’t tried most of them. The options include Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Skype and many more. Zoom is a business service but it works well and is clearly flavour of the month, with downloads up by 1,270%. Fake backgrounds are one of its winning features.

In this case, I recommend going with whatever you know best. You’re probably going to have to do remote telephone support and the more familiar you are with a system, the easier that will be. If you can get the same equipment at both ends, even better. If you have to start from scratch, try it out with someone else and find the tricky bits before involving grandma.

The version that could swing it for some people is Portal TV from Facebook (£149), which doesn’t have a screen. It plugs into your TV set and works with its own small remote as well as its “Hey Portal” voice control.

Amazon’s Echo Show

Fortunately, there is an alternative that I can recommend and use myself: Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo Show. At least with Amazon I’m a paying customer, whereas Google and Facebook make most of their money from surveillance-based advertising. I think it’s the lesser of three evils, but the final choice is up to you.

You set up an Alexa Show from a smartphone app and give it access to your contacts list. After that you will be able to make calls by saying “Alexa, call grandma”. Alexa can also call most numbers that are not in your contacts list if you spell them out (“Alexa, call 0 2 0 8…).

Alexa can read books and stories, including books from an Amazon Audible account. She can also control other home devices, such as lights, if you have any that are compatible. If you have an Amazon Prime account, an Alexa Show can play Amazon Prime videos.

Fire HD

If you decide to buy a tablet instead, an Amazon Fire HD is a good choice for your purposes, and the best value for money. There are two HD models with 8in (£79.99) and 10in (£149.99) screens, and a non-HD model with a 7in screen (£49.99). The 8in version is “easily the best tablet you can buy for £80”, but I think it’s worth paying more for the 10in model. This has a faster processor, a sharper 1920 x 1200-pixel screen, twice as much storage, better battery life (up to 12 hours) and a USB-C port. I’d also pay the extra £10 to remove the Amazon promotions.

A 5in Alexa Show works well as a bedside clock-radio alarm, and the larger versions work well as kitchen radios. With a Fire HD, you’d need to add an accessory stand and an external speaker. (Amazon’s custom case will prop it up for £39.99, but I’d rather have the old Show Mode Charging Dock, which converted a Fire HD 10 into an Echo Show. See below…)

Technically, Amazon’s Fire OS is a fork of Android, but it has more than enough apps and games. The apps include Zoom Cloud Meetings, Facebook Messenger and Skype.

apple ipads

Unfortunately, if you have to buy new iPads for both ends, then approximately £700 is not a cheap solution compared with roughly £200 for two Echo Shows, or one Echo Show and your current smartphone.

Android tablets

There are a zillion Android tablets, and you can save a lot of money by buying “off brand” products. Nevertheless, I’d go for a mainstream Samsung Galaxy Tab, one of the Huawei MediaPad range, or a Lenovo SmartTab. From what I’ve seen – which isn’t all of them – they are well made and they have good quality screens at reasonable prices.

From the Samsung range, I’d look at the 10.1in Galaxy Tab A10 with Android 9 (Pie) for around £199 or less.

Lenovo offers a 10.1in SmartTab tablet that “transforms to an Alexa-enabled Smart Screen when docked”. The dock provides the stand and extra speakers for an all-in price of £149 (M10) or £220 (P10). That ticks both boxes at an affordable price, but I’d still go for an Echo Show.

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