Practical Mac

I’ve been fortunate enough to work from locations of my own choosing for most of my career. But throughout all that time, having “meetings” has always been a pain.

It’s not for lack of options. We accomplish a lot via email, text messaging and shared documents, but sometimes it’s really good to be able to video chat with someone face-to-distant-face. A video call is also often much more effective.

Skype seems to be the most widely supported, but it’s always felt like an irritating mishmash in appearance and call quality. Google Hangouts work fairly well, but the interface seems to change every few weeks (“What happened to that button?” is asked a lot on our calls).

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I preferred the video-chat features in iChat for quality and stability, but Apple has pushed them into a corner of the OS X Messages app in favor of focusing on FaceTime video chatting, which works only one to one.

Lately I’ve been testing a new, promising entrant into the game. Slingshot (slingshotapp.com) was created by Squirrels (the company, not the species) and built upon technology it developed for one of my favorite utilities, Reflector.

Reflector uses Apple’s AirPlay technology to mirror an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to your computer. It’s great when giving presentations and walking through steps on the iOS device in real time, and is essential if you’re creating training videos.

With that technology baked in, Slingshot enables you to share the screen of an iOS device to a group of people on a shared conference.

I particularly like this idea for remote tech support.

I’ve written recently about Screens, an app that makes it easy to view and control someone else’s Mac from a computer or an iPad or iPhone.

When helping someone diagnose a problem, it’s much easier for me to see what’s on their screen.

But in the case of troubleshooting an iOS device, we’ve had to fall back on long bouts of probing questions like “What’s on your screen right now?” and “Can you tap the Back button?”

With Slingshot, I just need to ask the other person to share his or her device’s screen (I’ll use an iPad as an example; Slingshot also offers an app for devices running Android 4.1 or later, but screen sharing is not currently supported).

I can’t control the iPad, but at least I see what the other party is seeing, and since we’re in the middle of an audio or video conference anyway, it’s much easier to communicate actions.

However, there is a small catch. To mirror a device using Slingshot, you can’t do it from the iPad itself.

So I need to ask the other person to first install the free Slingshot application on his or her Mac or Windows PC, and then enable AirPlay mirroring on the iPad. Slingshot provides exceptionally clear instructions, with reference videos, to make this process easy.

In a few seconds, the screen appears within the window Slingshot creates for the current session, alongside video if you’re using the computer’s cameras. In my testing, I noticed very little lag or other performance issues.

Slingshot can also share views of the desktop or running applications for anyone participating in the conversation, but only one nonvideo item can be active at a time; so, I can share my iPad’s screen, but must relinquish it if other parties share their desktop.

Slingshot also includes the ability to chat via text, maintain a document containing meeting notes (though they must be saved by someone before the session ends; the service doesn’t hold onto them out of privacy concerns), share files, and let others not currently at a computer to call in to a phone number to participate in the meeting.

The Slingshot service offers a free 30-day trial that can host up to five users and five cameras.

From there the service costs $9.99 per month for a one-to-one connection; $29.99 per month for up to five users; $39.99 per month for up to 25 users; or $99.99 per month at the enterprise level that adds multiple simultaneous sessions (paying yearly instead of monthly reduces the amounts).

Although the software is free to download and anyone can join a session, only paid subscribers can create sessions.

Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.