How to make video calls from your UK TV set

How to make video calls from your UK TV set

Putting Skype into smart TV sets was a boon to families, especially for elderly, disabled or non-technical users who found a TV remote much easier to handle than a PC, tablet or smartphone.

Skype disabled this feature on smart TVs about a year ago, and there were lots of complaints on its online forum. These disappeared after the forum moved from community.skype.com to answers.microsoft.com. All your efforts – more than 50 pages – were binned at the end of June, along with “all the work-arounds for a Skype on TV app [that] were discussed in great detail,” according to a Microsoft forum moderator.

Pity. I could have used them ...

Although many of us grew up with a science-fiction vision of families video-chatting via their TV sets – what could be more obvious? – it hasn’t worked out that way. TV sets are consumer goods and they are intended to last for many years, if not decades. Smartphones, smartphone operating systems, apps and even video codecs are relatively ephemeral. Google can’t keep most Android phones up to date, so what chance have TV sets?

What makes things worse is that smart TV sets running Android TV OS can’t even support a simple USB webcam. Companies such as Logitech tried producing dedicated “TV cams” for Skype calls, some having built-in H.264 video compression. However, TV cams were an extra cost and created even more confusion.

Enter Tellybean

Tellybean was founded by someone with the usual problem: grandmother in Australia, grandchildren in Finland. Last year, it launched an app that converts a mobile phone into a webcam for your TV set. You install Tellybean Camera from Google Play, then pair it with an app on your smart TV set. (An Apple iOS version is apparently awaiting approval.)

Tellybean says its TV video-calling app “is available on Sony Bravia, Philips and Sharp TVs as well as selected Android TV set-top boxes”. It is also developing an app for Linux-based TV sets.

This year, Tellybean launched a crowd-funding effort to raise €375,000, and raised €519,000. Its Invesdor sales pitch provides a good overview of the company and its plans, except for not mentioning its use of the WebRTC (Real Time Communications) standard.

I’ve never used Tellybean and have no idea if it’s any good. It’s obviously not the ideal solution, which would be to plug a USB webcam into a TV set and have it just work. But at least Tellybean was founded by someone who has the same problem as you and is trying to fix it.

Other boxes

The Xbox One console runs Skype but you will need to purchase the expensive Kinect camera too.

Maybe there are lots of set-top boxes out there that support webcams and video chat software, but I can only find one on sale in Europe: Sentab’s inTouchTV (£115.00). Again, I’ve not tried it, but the Amazon.co.uk reviews are positive.

The blurb says it runs Android TV 5.1, and it comes with a webcam, a simple remote control, a wireless antenna, and an HDMI cable. You can use an Ethernet cable, which is the best option for video calling. Sentab’s video shows how to set it up.

SentabTV doesn’t work with Skype or other well-known video chat systems. You need Sentab boxes at both ends, or have one caller use Sentab’s app for Android or iOS, or the web option.

Another alternative is a Microsoft’s Xbox One games console. This is designed to plug into a TV set, and it runs a version of Windows 10, so it runs Skype as well as handling games, movies and music. You don’t need an Xbox Live Gold subscription to use Skype, but you do need a Kinect camera, which is an expensive extra.

Sony PlayStations don’t run Skype (the PlayStation Vita portable had it for a while), apparently because Sony won’t allow it, and ooVoo abandoned plans to offer its video chat app on the PS4. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners can only chat with people who own the same console.

Finally, if you own any Apple iOS products, you could buy an Apple TV box (from £139) and use Airplay to cast your iPhone or iPad image to the TV screen. Although best known for running Apple’s own Facetime software, they also run Skype.

From that little bunch, Sentab’s inTouchTV looks like your best bet. Any readers who own one can comment below.

A PC works

If you already have a PC, you can always plug it into your TV via an HDMI port and use Skype or another video-chat system. Pretty much any desktop or laptop would do the job, and any operating system, right down to a Raspberry Pi.

The drawback with using an HDMI cable is that you might not be able to reach your PC from the comfort of your couch. However, you could either use a wireless keyboard to control a distant PC, or use a Google Chromecast or a Roku streaming stick or similar device to “cast” the screen to the TV set.

Is Google Chromecast your friend when it comes to streaming video calls from your PC to on your television?

You should also buy a separate USB webcam, rather than use a laptop’s built-in webcam. The better models include auto-focus cameras, and microphones that promise background noise reduction. Most offer 720p/HD resolution (1280 x 720 pixels) or 1080p/Full HD resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels). Using a higher resolution means transferring more data, and frame rates may suffer. I’d go for a higher frame rate at a lower resolution.

There are lots of webcams available, but the Logitech C920 HD is very popular even at £69.90. The Logitech C270 (£16.79) and Microsoft’s LifeCam HD-3000 (£17.69) are good cheap options.

Buy a dedicated PC

For convenience, you could even set up a fanless palm-sized “mini PC” to do the job. There are plenty of models available, at prices from around £100 to over £400. Most of the cheaper ones have Intel Atom (Cherry Trail) processors, which are OK for this kind of application. Affordable examples range from the T8 Mini PC (£96.99) to the Minix Neo Z83-4 (£159.90). The Neo Z83-4 is better for having 4GB or memory instead of the more common 2GB, and 64-bit Windows 10. Unfortunately, it only has 32GB of storage, but it supports SD cards up to 256GB.

At the moment, you can get a Neo Z83-4 with a wireless keyboard and mouse and a hard drive adapter for £179.90. Add a cheap webcam and you’d have a video calling system for under £200. For an extra £11.90, you could buy a VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) mount to attach the Neo to the back of your TV set, so it’s out of sight. Just check the back of your TV set for the four VESA mounting holes first.

Everything would be simpler if manufacturers built Windows 10 PCs into their TV sets, but don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

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