The world is battening down the hatches. As pubs and clubs close for business and employees begin working from home in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, aside from work meetings going digital, virtual parties and pub quizzes are popping up online, remote playdates and poker evenings are being arranged. And all of it being facilitated through a number of video meeting platforms.
But not all video meeting services are made equal. Whether you’re trying to socialise at a distance, check in on your grandparents, or have an important conference call with your team or prospective client, there’s a video meeting service for that.
We’ve had a play around with them all, called our pals, and tinkered around with all the various features. Below you’ll find a list that will help you ensure that when you’re trying to stay connected, you’re doing it through the perfect platform for your needs.
The best video meeting app for effective work meetings
Pros: Screen sharing; breakout rooms; record meetings
Cons: Not the simplest service to use; time limit on free plan
Price: Free; Zoom Pro $14.99 (£11.79) per month; Zoom Business & Zoom Enterprise $19.99 (£15.73) per month
For many companies, Zoom is the video meeting platform of choice. And for good reason, too. Along with the standard video and audio, Zoom is also packed full of helpful features that make it ideal for organising and holding meetings with work teams.
You have the ability to share your screen, message the group and even send across files and photos from your cloud service of choice.
You can use Zoom from the iOS and Android app or from your desktop or browser, though it’s worth mentioning that Zoom is definitely more computer friendly than it is phone friendly. Launching a meeting is also a doddle – with just a click of a button, you can either generate a link to send to your friends or type in an email address to send the link directly to someone’s inbox.
Right now, Zoom has been having a big influx of users and the web version has been crashing and disconnecting for some of us at WIRED, so that might be something to keep in mind.
There are also a number of pricing tiers that you can subscribe to depending on the size of your organisation. The free version has pretty much everything you need – screen sharing, recorded meetings and even breakout rooms. However, with the free version meetings with more than three people cut out after 40 minutes – not ideal for most businesses. Paid subscription options give you access to over 100 participants and unlimited meeting lengths.
That said, it’s not the best service if you’re trying to stay connected to your pals, though. One-to-one calls are unlimited, but if you just want to call up your friend, WhatsApp or FaceTime (see below) is probably the better option as the interface isn’t exactly built for quick calls and isn’t the simplest thing to navigate. You either have to give somebody your 10-digit personal meeting ID or send over a Zoom link. Try fiddling around with that if your parents aren’t so technically inclined.
Gripes aside, Zoom is really quite affordable, but if you’re looking to set up your own virtual party, you should probably opt for something else that doesn’t cost as much to get the party going all night long.
Provides a nice balance for both workers and socialisers
Pros: Simple and clean to use on both mobile and desktop; distinguishes nicely between consumer and business
Cons: Requires a Google account to set up a meeting; the way Google has split the apps is also a bit confusing
Price: Free; G Suite Business $12 (£10.17) a month per user (meetings of up to 50 people); G Suite Enterprise $25 (£21.20) a month per user
There are two versions of Google Hangouts, which can be slightly confusing when you’re looking through an app store and trying to figure out which one is the one you need.
Just to be clear – so you don’t end up trying to join a work meeting from the wrong app – Hangouts Meet is the enterprise version for businesses, while Hangouts Chat is the consumer version of Hangouts, used for connecting with your friends.
Having the two platforms means that Google has struck a nice balance between catering to the crowd who want to hang out with their virtual mates and the business users looking to hold (actually important) meetings. The nomenclature may be confusing, but it’s a good idea nonetheless.
Hangouts Meet requires a G-Suite subscription to use. It allows you to connect with up to 250 people at a time with the advanced subscription, and a real perk of that is that it connects seamlessly with G-Suite, so any calendar invites will be sent straight to your inbox with a link to join the meeting.
Google’s made advanced features like increased meeting sizes and meeting recordings free until the end of June to help those during the Covid-19 crisis. The apps are also far easier to use on mobile and tablet than Zoom thanks to a clean interface.
The free version is a bit more restrictive, with a maximum hangout size of 25 people, so if you’re looking to have an all-night virtual party with everyone you know, Hangouts Chat might not be for you.
What we love about it, though, is that it’s a hell of a lot more fun than Zoom. While Zoom has its virtual backgrounds, Hangouts has emojis, stickers and GIFs. It all just feels a lot more modern than its main competitors.
Again, like Zoom, it isn’t the best for one-to-one calls because it requires you to send over an invitation or a link, and you can’t just call up a friend impromptu. Another thing is that with the Hangouts Chat app, the organiser needs a Google account to set up the meeting, and not everyone may be comfortable using Google for a number of reasons.
It’s the social video meeting app for Zoomers
Pros: Fun; will keep you connected with friends
Cons: Some might not enjoy getting bugged every half an hour; it can be a little invasive
Price: Free, with in-app purchases for game expansion packs
Houseparty is all the rage right now among the teens as they seek connection in these socially distant times. Unlike Zoom, however, it’s specifically made for socialising and chatting.
Billed as a face-to-face social network, it’s a video meeting platform that lets you chat with up to eight of your friends at a time. In that respect, it does a pretty great job.
When you first sign up, you’re prompted to give Houseparty access to your contacts, Facebook and Snapchat. This enables you to see which of your friends are already on Houseparty. As soon as you connect these services, you can immediately start inviting people to group video chats, meaning you don’t have to ask for their username and manually type it in.
Think of the app as the ‘house’. Whenever one of your friends opens the app, they enter the house, and you can immediately start chatting with them. If no one’s online, you can send them a notification to get the party started.
The interesting thing with Houseparty is that if one of your friends is already in a house party, you can join in, even if you weren’t invited. While it’s quite nice that it’s loose with how it defines a friendship group, allowing you to join any ongoing party could also be seen as pretty invasive – so potentially not great for young kids.
The big social draw, though, are the games. There are a bunch of games that you can play with your Houseparty, like Head’s Up, Quick Draw and a (fairly US-centric) quiz, all while video chatting. There are also additional features that allow you to record your group chats and even share your screen.
Houseparty works a lot better as an app than it does a desktop application simply because of the spontaneous nature of the service. It’s fun, but, quite obviously, not one for your work meetings.
Too outdated to really be any good
Pros: You get a lot of hours and participants for free
Cons: It’s old, clunky and not very efficient
Price: Free; Skype for Business $2 per user
“Why is no-one talking about Skype?” you may well ask. Well, it might be because it hasn’t been updated since August. And Microsoft, who owns Skype, seems to be putting all of its effort into the Microsoft Teams platform – to little effect as we note below.
Skype is just so clunky that it’s really not worth the hassle. You still need to have Skype downloaded onto your computer or your phone to join a video call, and anyone you invite to the meeting needs to have a Skype account. If they don’t have one, then there is a way to invite people who don’t have an account to a video call, but walking people through that process is a headache because the function is buried so deep inside the application.
You do get a lot for free, though, with a meeting length of four hours per session and a maximum video meeting size of 50.
It’s an OK choice if you and your friends are all still using Skype, with its additional chat features, but it feels dated now. The kids have moved onto Snapchat, while the adults are using Slack and Zoom.
And it’s pretty cumbersome trying to set up a video meeting from your phone, so definitely avoid the phone app if you’re organising a video conference because you have to manually add every contact into a group. This takes forever on mobile, so best to do it on the desktop app.
The Skype Business plan is pretty cheap, and you get 250 video meeting slots and extra security, but again, the torture of setting everyone up with an account and then just trying to complete tasks which should be simple means it just isn’t worth the hassle.
Pros: You get a lot of hours and participants for free.
Cons: It’s old, clunky and not very efficient.
Pricing: Free, Skype for Business – $2 per user.
Terribly confusing, but everyone’s using it
Pros: Loads of features like background blur, chat functionality and integrated apps
Cons: Those features don’t work very well
Price: Free with Office 365 subscription
Oh dear. Microsoft Teams is a confusing, buggy mess, and has a really steep learning curve.
First of all, the user interface is horrible. It’s confusing to navigate when the menus and functions should be simple to understand. That’s probably because Teams has combined a chat platform with a video conferencing system, much like Slack. But it’s not as well-integrated as Slack.
You also can’t just have a quick impromptu meeting, either. You have to physically invite existing participants into a team and then start a meeting. It’s all rather confusing and seems like it takes more steps than necessary steps to do one thing.
As we were testing the video meeting function, it continuously froze, stopping us from being able to mute our microphone. The mobile app wasn’t any better and kept crashing when we switched apps. Worse, the chat continues to scroll even when you’re typing during a video meeting.
There are some neat features packed into Teams, but this doesn’t make up for its shortcomings. There is a nice little background blur feature which lets you phase out the background of your video during a meeting. This means that if a family member walks into shot, people in the meeting won’t get distracted. And of course, it includes everything from screen sharing and screen recordings to file sharing and GIFs, stickers and emoji.
Best for checking in on a loved one
Pros: Lots of fun features, easy to use, has a maximum of 32 people
Cons: You need an Apple device
It’s the simplest bit of face-to-face action out there, making it the perfect platform for calling your loved one or having a quick family meeting.
If you just want to drop in on one person, simply go to their contact page and press the FaceTime button. It’s extremely easy to use, which makes it great for checking in on the grandparents who merely have to accept the call (as long as they have Apple devices, too, of course). You can also make and accept FaceTime calls from your Mac or your iPad. If you’re using your Mac, you can record the FaceTime calls, much like Zoom or Hangouts.
As for group calls? Well, that’s just as easy as one-to-one chats. It’s a feature that Apple introduced back in 2018, and it allows you to make FaceTime calls with up to a sizeable 32 people.
To FaceTime more than one person, you just navigate to the FaceTime app and click the Plus button to add all your contacts and then choose the video button. In the call, participants will appear in bubbles that grow bigger as they speak.
FaceTime is definitely more for socialising than it is for business use. It’s got a lot of fun features, like being able to create live photos from your FaceTime calls or change your face into an Animoji.
We particularly liked that you were able to add filters and stickers to your video by plonking them right onto the screen. It’s intuitive and slick. And, as a native Apple feature, it’s all free.
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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