10 ways to improve your video calls

Across five of the most popular apps.

Video calling
Do more with your favorite video-calling app.Facebook

Video-calling smartphone apps let you share your face with with anyone, anywhere—for free. All you have to do is maintain a strong connection strong: Download the latest version of your favorite video-calling app, use it on the strongest available cellular or Wi-Fi network, and shut down any other apps that might steal valuable bandwidth.

Even if you already follow this general advice, you may not be aware of all the behind-the-scenes abilities that you can access with free programs like FaceTime, Google Duo, Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat. We've rounded up 10 of our favorite tips for improving your video calls on these apps.

For FaceTime (only on iOS)

1. Call only over Wi-Fi

FaceTime provides a fast, steady video link, but as a result, it can chew through a lot of cellular data. If you have a limited plan, this might leave you with mere crumbs at the end of the month. To prevent an accidental data shortage, disable FaceTime calling over your cellular network. Even if you have an unlimited plan, you should try out this setting when you're traveling abroad, where mobile data can cost a lot more than usual.

From Settings, tap Cellular, scroll down to FaceTime, and then turn off the toggle switch. Now, when you're not connected to Wi-Fi, you won't receive video calls. If you forget about your data limits and try to make a call, you'll see a "No Network Connection" message. As soon as you successfully connect to a Wi-Fi network again, all of FaceTime's normal functionality will return.

2. Answer calls on your computer

There are pros and cons to working with an Apple app like FaceTime. On the negative side, Android devices can't get the app. On the bright side, both iOS and macOS can—which means your computer can pick up and make video calls. Try it for long discussions (when you don't want to hold up your phone by hand), or if you're working at your desk and feel too lazy to pull your handset out of your pocket.

To take advantage of this ability, you must connect your iPhone and Mac to the same Wi-Fi network and log into your Apple ID on both devices. Next, enable the feature on your phone: Open Settings, tap Phone, choose Wi-Fi Calling, and turn on the Wi-Fi Calling on This Phone toggle switch.

Once you've adjusted your phone settings, turn to your computer. Open FaceTime on your Mac, and you should receive an automatic request, which you must accept, to allow calls from your iPhone. If the request doesn't come through, then open the FaceTime menu along the top of the screen, choose Preferences, and check the box labelled Calls From iPhone. Now, you should see incoming call notifications on the top right of your computer screen, and you can answer them on your computer by clicking Accept. To make calls from your Mac, open the app and choose someone from your contact list.

For Google Duo

3. Change your self-image

When you call someone on Google Duo, their face will take up most of the screen, restricting your video feed to a little bubble at the side of the display. You can adjust how you appear on your own screen by moving or expanding that bubble.

If your own face is blocking part of your friend's feed, getting the the way of a cute baby or pet, then move the bubble: Hold your finger on the circle, then swipe in any direction to move it to another corner of the screen. On the other hand, on occasions such as video interviews, you might want to expand your view of yourself to make sure you're looking your best. In that case, tap on the image to make your picture full-screen and reduce your contact's feed to a bubble.

4. Disable Knock Knock

One of Google Duo's coolest features, called Knock Knock, provides a preview of your caller's video feed (if he or she is already in your contacts). This lets you check out their circumstances, without them seeing you, before you pick up. However, because it kicks in before a call has even begun, this feature can gobble up cellular data even faster than usual.

As handy as Knock Knock can be, data conservationists should consider turning it off. To do so, tap the Menu button (three dots) on the top right, choose Settings, and tap Knock Knock. While you're reducing video data usage, on the same Settings page, turn on the Limit mobile data usage toggle switch. This setting will compress your video feeds to take up less bandwidth, but only while you're relying on a cellular network rather than Wi-Fi.

For Skype

5. Automatically answer calls (Android only)

When you're distracted with other tasks, it's easy to miss a call. To make yourself more available, you can set up Skype to automatically answer incoming calls, so you won't have to accept them manually. At this time, the feature is only available in the Android version of the app.

If you're less eager to please your contacts, there's still a good reason to enable this setting: You can use it as a streaming video monitor for any room in your home. Take an old Android tablet or phone, create a new Skype account for it, and set it to answer calls automatically. Now, you'll be able to call this device from your main Skype account, which will open a video feed of your office, nursery, or other rooms.

To set up automatic call answering, open Skype, tap your avatar at the top of the main screen, and choose Calling. Turn on the Answer incoming calls automatically toggle switch. If you'd like to launch your video feed at the same time as the call starts, then also switch on the Start my video automatically setting. However, given the state of dishevelment in which we sometimes use our phones, we'd recommend that you leave the latter switch off (unless you're setting up a video monitor). This will answer calls in audio mode, with the option to turn on video later if you're feeling presentable.

6. Share your location

As you carry on a Skype call, you can spice up the conversation with reaction GIFs, polls, and even your location. Sharing your whereabouts is an extremely useful ability—it can let your partner know how soon you'll arrive at home, or tell a friend the exact area of the park where your group is meeting. In addition to your current location, you can share any place on the map, pointing your contacts towards a restaurant, concert venue, or meeting point.

You don't need to be in the midst of a call to share a location. Open Skype, tap any contact in your list, and hit the Plus button on the bottom left. From the menu that appears, choose Location. Then pick a spot on the map—the phone will detect your current location automatically—and tap the Send button (it looks like a small right arrow).

For Facebook Messenger

7. Turn a one-on-one into a group call

A total of 50 people can join a Facebook Messenger call, although only six people appear on screen at any one time (more than six participants, and the screen will automatically display just the person who's currently speaking). But if you're in a one-on-one chat and decide you want another contact's input, Messenger lets you instantly add that person and transform the existing call into a group one.

In your current call, look for the Add person icon (a plus icon next to a silhouette) in the lower right-hand corner. A list of your contacts will come up. Tap the Ring button next to the person or people you'd like to add, and they'll receive an invitation to join the call. When you hang up, the video call will transform into a group-chat window, allowing you to carry on the conversation by text. This also makes it easy to call back the same group of contacts: You can start a video call among an existing conversation thread by tapping the Video icon on the top right of the window.

8. Apply filters and effects

You can play around with filters and effects on Instagram, Snapchat, and just about every other app with a camera component. Facebook Messenger is no exception. Here's how to apply these toys to a live video conversation.

During any video call, tap on the center of the screen, and filter and effect buttons will appear. Tap the Filter button (the droplet symbol) at the bottom to scroll through filters that change the colors, contrast, and style of your video feed. In the top right corner, you can view these changes as they occur. To remove any of the filters, scroll to the left of that option.

When you tap the Effects button (the star symbol), you'll find digital overlays, from bunny ears for your face to falling heart shapes for the whole screen. Like with filters, you'll find effect-canceling options on the far left.

For Snapchat

9. Send a pre-recorded video message

With Snapchat, you don't have to talk live. If you'd like to curate your words more carefully, or your friend is unavailable when you call, you can send a pre-recorded video message.

In the app, begin a chat with someone, tap and hold on the Video icon, and then record your message. Although you can only leave a short clip, this visual voicemail is a great way to say hi, even if you can't get through directly. If you receive a message like this, you can save it to your chat timeline by pressing and holding on the chat bubble and then selecting Save in Chat.

If you'd prefer to send a longer clip, you can do so through the normal Snapchat camera screen. Touch and hold the Camera button at the bottom of the screen, tap Send (the arrow symbol), and choose which contacts will receive your video. Although this method can record longer videos, it doesn't allow recipients to save the messages.

10. Swap cameras faster

If you suddenly see something memorable mid-video-call, you'll want to share the sight with your contact before it disappears. That's why Snapchat makes it easy to switch camera views: During a video call, tap your icon at the bottom of the screen, and an enlarged version will pop up. Double-tap that to switch from your phone's front-facing to its rear-facing camera.

This shortcut also works on Snapchat's normal camera screen. Just double-tap in the center of the screen to switch between cameras. This might save you the precious few seconds you need to capture that unicycle-riding dog before it moves out of sight. If you're in less of a hurry, you can take your time hunting down the button in the top right-hand corner.