Ranking the video apps

The good news, now that we’re all stuck working from home, is that there are so many free video calling apps available. The bad news is that there are so many free video calling apps available.

It’s now possible to video chat with people almost anywhere in the world. The problem is, everybody seems to have his or her preferred app, so you find yourself adding more and more of them to you phones and tablets. Assuming you can – Apple’s Facetime isn’t available to Android devotees like me.

The Washington Post tested out a bunch, including a new competitor from Facebook, and found that each one has advantages and disadvantages. But the increasingly ubiquitous Zoom, despite some security concerns, was the all-around winner:

No video chat app looked great every time, but one had clear video more often than the others: Skype. The app that helped create the idea of video chats with grandparents is still in the game.

When we held up an eye chart to the camera, Skype made it easiest to read the small type. It’s also what we used to make the video accompanying this column. Just know, its performance demands a lot out of your computer, so you may need to close other apps.

[…]

Membership in the Apple cult — we mean, club — has its privileges. Most of the security pros we spoke with said FaceTime was their go-to of our mainstream options. The problem is, of course, it only works if everyone you need to speak with also has Apple devices.

Group video calls of up to 32 people using FaceTime meet the gold standard of security with end-to-end encryption. That means they can’t be seen or heard by anyone else who might try to intercept them.

[…]

Yep, we’re sticking with Zoom, even after all those security problems — and in part, because of how it responded to them.

Zoom defines much of what we need from a group video conference. It gives you the simplest way to get up to 49 people together on one screen in happy rows of boxes, regardless of whether they have an account or whether they want to use an iPhone, Windows PC, or even an old-fashioned landline. Usually, everyone just has to click one link to get in.

Zoom’s features win the Goldilocks principle, sitting somewhere in between a work app (you can share screens) and a social one (you can turn your background into a Malibu dreamhouse). While it could still do better when participants have poor connections, Zoom’s call quality is good enough across a shockingly wide array of devices. Google’s Meet, a Zoom clone in many respects, never met our threshold for video quality and is utterly bereft of any fun features at all.

Then there’s simplicity. Our families and friends all know how to Zoom. Even after a week, we still can’t quite figure out — or trust — the sharing mechanisms of Facebook’s Rooms. Skype recently added a one-link-to-join option like Zoom, but you can’t use it for a scheduled meeting or put it behind a passcode. Houseparty is fun but requires too much coordination when you actually want to meet someone at a particular time. Apple’s FaceTime needs a rethink for the pandemic era where you can’t expect everyone you need to interact with owns an Apple device.

Of course my preferred video calling app, Google Meet, wasn’t the best in any category. But as someone who uses G Suite, I find that it incorporates the best in my email and calendar.

I seem to be in the minority, though. (Most clients I tell about it have never even heard of it, and Google has not helped its own case by having so many chatting and messaging apps – Duo, Hangouts, Meet – that seem to do pretty much the same thing.) So I guess I’ll have to keep several of these apps on my phone until a clear winner emerges.

Either way, the Post story concludes with a prudent warning about the price of “free”:

…Zoom’s main business is selling video chat software. It’s the only service we tested that you have to pay for after a limited window — $15 per month for calls lasting longer than 40 minutes. But we actually find that reassuring compared to some of its rivals mainly in the advertising and gadget-selling business. We know we sound like a broken record, but remember: If the product is free, that means you’re the product.