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How to build the ultimate Zoom setup for Thanksgiving

It ruined spring break, it ruined summer, and now COVID-19 has come for your Thanksgiving. As cases of the deadly virus have spiked nationwide, authorities are pleading with Americans to stay at home and avoid large gatherings. For most of us, that means Thanksgiving at home with the same tiny crew we’ve spent the last eight months cooped up with. While we can pat ourselves on the back for not becoming the next superspreaders, that’s little consolation for all the half-eaten turkey and empty chairs at the dining room table.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci would probably console us with the prospect of a Zoom call to family and friends, but as those of us who have actually tried this solution know, it usually sucks. Many of us already spend our working days glued to Brady Bunch grids of bored co-workers, and a grainy, time-delayed version of Uncle Dave spewing QAnon conspiracies is just not the same as barking at each other in real life over a pile of poultry.

But who said it had to be such a slog? With a few minor upgrades to your setup using equipment you may already have, you can comfortably kick back and actually enjoy a Zoom call this year. Here’s how.

Editor’s note: These instructions refer to Zoom, which has become the Kleenex of videoconferencing during the COVID era, but the same tips apply for any video conferencing software. See our list of the best video conferencing software if you want to mix it up a bit.

Nick Mokey/Digital Trends

Use your biggest screen

You wouldn’t watch The Mandalorian on your tiny phone screen, so why would you try to cram your entire extended family into 4.7 inches? Make them life-sized by throwing the image on your TV instead. You just need to connect your TV to your laptop.

This is really the centerpiece to a relaxing Zoom Thanksgiving — the crisp-skinned, spatchcocked roast turkey with gravy, if you will. Now you can kick back and talk to your family from the same couch you use to binge Netflix on, rather than hunching over the same laptop you use to crunch spreadsheets 45 hours a week. For bonus points (and the possibility of dozing off mid-call), add an ottoman, a beer, and a slice of apple pie.

Improve your webcam positioning

Our first step fixes a problem for you, and creates one for your guests: Now you look like you’re constantly gazing out the window, because your laptop camera doesn’t align with the TV. You can fix this one of three ways.

If you’re lazy and impatient, just plop the laptop in front of the TV. It will obscure part of the picture, but your eyes will be looking in the right direction.

If you’re trying to impress, you’re far better off splurging on one of the best webcams to perch atop the TV. We sprang for a Logitech Brio, and our family couldn’t stop raving about the quality.

If you don’t want to spend the money, or you’re reading this too late to order a webcam in time, consider the McGyver solution of using your phone as a computer webcam. You don’t even need a wire to connect the two, so you can place the phone wherever you want. Just leave some time to set it up before your call; it’s fiddly.

Fix your lighting

Every photographer you know harps on this for a reason. Lighting is everything. Much has already been written about how to look sharp for webcam meetings, but this is Thanksgiving, not a job interview. The best ring lights will deliver optimal lighting fit for a beauty vlogger, but their cold color temperature will make you feel more like you’re on a movie set than unwinding with family.

Our advice: Just turn on every light, except the ones directly behind you, which will induce backlighting that turns you into a silhouette. If all your living room lights don’t get bright enough on their own, consider upgrading some bulbs to a higher wattage. The best LED bulbs deliver loads of light for a fraction of the electricity an incandescent bulb would use.

Iron out your Wi-Fi connection kinks

Set your computer beside your TV and visit one of the best internet speed tests to see what kind of bandwidth you’re working with. Zoom recommends at least 600kbps up and down for the most basic video quality, and at least 1.8Mbps for 1080p video, but this is absolutely a situation where more is better. Our guide to the most common Wi-Fi problems and how to fix them can help you resolve any hiccups. If your TV is near your Wi-Fi router, like a lot of people we know, consider digging into your archaic box of cords and digging out an Ethernet cable to hardwire your computer. It’s old-school but bulletproof.

Set a time and send an invite

For less tech-savvy users, firing up a Zoom call seems to induce more anxiety than anything else. Where do I go? When? What do I click?

Answer them all early by just scheduling the meeting in Zoom and sending everyone an email with the invite link. Establish a time so that you’re not texting five different people trying to agree on one last-minute. Log on five minutes early so that you can talk Grandma through her microphone issues.

Find a politically polarizing issue and insist on aggressively debating it after five glasses of scotch

I mean, what else were you doing all this work for?

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