Calling Home for the Holidays

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many families will not be able to gather in person as they normally would whether due to financial situation, health concerns, travel restrictions, etc. It is important to take time to connect with family and friends, even if you do it from afar. Here are some options available to help you and your loved ones connect digitally via audio/video this holiday season
while distant.

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays

‘Cause no matter how far away you roam

If you want to be a happy in a million ways

For the holidays, you can’t beat home, sweet home

There really is no place like home for the holidays. Unfortunately, home sweet home might not be a physical, in-person reality this season. With COVID-19 wreaking havoc for many families medically, financially, and otherwise, many are opting to postpone or avoid family gatherings due to concers with the health of relatives, or due to quarantine. But family is the most important thing, and being able to be with one another especially during the holiday season is important, so in this brief blog post, let’s take a look at some of the options available for remotely and virtually gathering your family together this holiday season.

If you can’t be face-to-face in person, still being able to see each other is the next best thing! Here are some options for video calling services that are free.

Jitsi Meet

Jitsi Meet is a free online video meeting solution that offers video calling and screen sharing. Not only is it free, but you don’t even have to make an account or download any software to use it! Just create a meeting name, start your call, and have others join. Jitsi Meet offers HD audio and video, unlimited free access for up to 50 participants at a time, end-to-end encryption, multi-screen sharing, remote control, and other neat integrations as well. Not only is it available in your web browser on your computer, but Jitsi Meet also has Android and iOS apps as well. I personally use Jitsi a lot, and highly recommend it.

Download for Android | Download for iOS

Google Duo

Google Duo is another free online video calling solution. Duo is available in a web browser on your computer, and also has apps for Android and iOS as well. If you don’t already have a Google account, you’ll need to make a free account which only takes a few minutes. It features one-on-one calling, group calling, and end-to-end encryption as well as a variety of fun features. Duo also integrates with Google smart products and is built-in to many Android devices already. I’ve used Duo on several occasions, and do not have any major complaints.

Download for Android | Download for iOS

Facebook’s Messenger

Facebook’s Messenger platform recently launched a new feature called “Messenger Rooms,” a video calling solution different than their existing group video call functionality. While you can still create a group message in the Messenger app and begin a video call, now you can create a video call “room” with a shareable link. Friends and family can join your call via the link–even if they don’t have a facebook account. With a wide variety of other fun and functional features, Messenger is definitely a viable option for gathering your loved ones virtually. Messenger is available on Android, iOS, and Windows 10 from the Microsoft Store.

Download for Android | Download for iOS | Download for Windows 10

Apple’s FaceTime

FaceTime is perhaps one of the most well-known video calling applications in existence and is a functional solution for up to 32 participants, though everyone has to have an iPhone, iPad, or Mac computer. If your family isn’t entirely in the Apple ecosystem, this might not necessarily be the solution for you. Despite that, friendly features such as Animoji, stickers, and integration with iMessage–all without a subscription–make this another great option for some people.

Download for iOS

For the technologically agnostic…

And don’t forget: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with simply picking up the telephone to have a phone conversation with loved ones, or even writing a letter. Because home isn’t necessarily a house, a dining room table, or living room with a Christmas tree. Home is where your heart is, and connecting with your friends and family from afar whether by video, phone, or in writing, can help you be home for the holidays.

What is the holiday season looking like for your and your loved ones this year? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Wishing you each the merriest of holiday seasons and a safe and happy new year.

Review: Samsung Galaxy Tab S6

Released in August of 2019, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 becomes the new Samsung standard for tablets, in place of the Tab 4 and Tab 5Se. I  picked up the Tab S6 on an open-box deal from Best Buy (no deal or sponsorship). I have previously owned an iPad Mini years back, as well as the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, though I no longer have either. The itch for a tablet was strong, and this time around, Samsung won the vote. But why? Let’s take a look at some of the selling points.

Price | The Tab S6, without the open-box deal I got, currently retails for roughly 650.00 USD for the base model. However, if you keep an eye out, you can snag an open-box deal on one for about 200.00 USD less! And at that price point, this tablet really packs a punch. Why?

Specifications | Because 650.00 USD (or 450.00 USD in my case) gets you a 10.5 inch screen, 128 GB of solid state storage, 6 GB of RAM, and a snappy octa-core processor. The base price even includes the tablet’s pen like with the Microsoft Surface, which other tablet manufacturers either don’t have (looking at you, Kindle) or require you to purchase separately (Apple).

UX | Obviously the user experience is a big deal, since I’m going to be the user experiencing the tablet. I was looking for a true tablet experience for while I am away from my custom desktop computer. I’m big on customization and versatility. I have a Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ running Android and enjoy it very much. The Google Play store has a huge variety of apps available, including the Microsoft Office suite, WordPress, as well as apps for social media, photography, games and other entertainment, as well as utilities that can be useful for an on-the-go IT professional such as myself. Additionally, while I like the Samsung flavor of the graphical user interface, Android allows me to overlay my own preferred launchers should I so desire–and without having to root or jailbreak my device to do so. I am currently using the Microsoft Launcher.

So thus far I’ve mentioned a few things that I really like about the device. But what cons are worth mentioning?

Downfalls | Let’s start with the pen. It is made of a plastic, which feels a bit light and cheap–though I suppose I didn’t expect too much for an included accessory. It pales in comparison to the pen that comes with the Microsoft Surface, and is also not as good as the Apple Pencil.

Despite being too light for my taste, and a bit cheap-feeling, my biggest gripe comes to storage of the pen. There is a shallow groove on the rear of the device beneath the camera lens. This groove has two magnetic points that hold the pen in place–uh, sometimes. The pen falls off the groove or gets knocked out of place easily, and the groove is difficult to find without looking at the rear of the device. I’ve lost my pen quite a few times in the last two weeks. To further my compaint, snapping the pen to the rear of the device means that the device can no longer rest flat on a surface such as a table, desk, and also restricts the use of some wall mounts. It also happens to be right where I prefer to hold the device while on the go, which is a bit inconvenient. None of these things will necessarily be a downfall for you, but they were for me. After extensive use, I’ve found that it is actually quite difficult to attached the pen to it’s groove without looking directly at it, and that the pen falls off quite easily, which has become annoying.

Further, the pen has less functionality than I would like. The S Gestures that you can do to interact with the OS are convenient and nice. Unfortunately, that is where the interaction runs out. The pen can be used as a replacement for your finger in other apps, but the button will continue to function in relation to the OS, not the app, thus prohibiting a large amount of usefulness. One thing I want to be able to do is hold the pen, lean back, and flick it up and down to scroll up and down a webpage or other app, but alas, this functionality seems to be missing.

Really, the pen was the only complaint I had with the purchase–and though I have things I wish Samsung had done better, the pen is still functional and is not uncomfortable to hold for short amounts of time. The pen might be a dealbreaker for you, or you might never touch it? So what am I doing with the device?

In the weeks that I’ve had the Galaxy Tab 6S, I have used it to import photos from my Canon DSLR (no additional software required), edit RAW image files in Google’s Snapseed photo editing application–which is shockingly good for being free, browse Reddit, the internet, access banking information, VPN into my home network, VPN into my work network, remote access and administer both workstations and servers, and listened to plenty of music and watched videos on YouTube.

I have had zero issues accomplishing what I need to. In fact, just earlier this evening my wife and I were at dinner and I had the tablet with me. I got a call from work with an emergency. I wouldn’t have lugged a laptop with me, but I happened to habe the tablet. Within a minute or so, I was VPN’ed into our company’s network, accessed a server, and did what I needed to do to assist an employee.

Similarly, the other night I had the opportunity to pick up my camera and create some images of my wife. I didn’t want to wait to import the photos on my desktop and process them there, so I plugged my camera into my tablet, imported the photos, and processed them, in Snapseed. Within 10 minutes I had a couple of fantastic images to share.

I’ve found that overall the tablet has conformed to my needs and flexed to every situation I’ve found myself in thus far. It has been a good buy. Would I buy it again? Most likely! Given that I like to use the pen and the pen is quite subpar, I likely would not pay full price for one, but I would willingly pay open-box or used pricing again. If you’re looking for a powerful daily driver of a tablet, then this might just be the ticket for you!

Do you have a Galaxy Tab S6? Let me know how you like it in the comments below! Cheers.

~ Griff


 AUGUST 2020 UPDATE

I had to come back to update this post after having used the Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 for a longer period of time, as well as having traveled with it.

In the original post, I spent a fair amount of time griping about the terrible pen magnet/storage on the rear of the device. I’m sorry to say, but I am going to spend a moment griping about it again. Over the last several months, I have been constantly frustrated with the pen not attaching without careful placement, the pen falling off the magnet, and my inevitable loss of the pen since it fell off the magnet somewhere. Sure, you can get a case that secures the pen–but this should not be necessary. By design, the pen should be easy to keep track of, use, and stow. This has become a major downside to the device, for me at least. But onto more positive things.

One of my primary questions was whether I could use the tablet as a replacement for my laptop when traveling. The short answer is: absolutely! I spent the week of my recent vacation reading books, browsing the web, writing for this blog, editing a couple of casual photos, playing games, doing email, and a couple of other tasks, including troubleshooting some stuff with my parents’ home network. I had brought my laptop–just in case–and found that I didn’t pull it out even once. The Tab S6 was all I needed! Now, a qualification is necessary here. I did bring my Logitech MX Master 3 bluetooth mouse and my Keychron K6 bluetooth mechanical keyboard for when I was writing my blog posts, but otherwise, the tablet by itself was just fine.

So, my verdict after such extended use and travel with the Tab S6, is that I highly recommend it, but do note that some kind of case or other solution to keep track of the pen will be absolutely necessary.