Now tech’s big guns are trying to replace it. Last week, Facebook rolled out Messenger Rooms, a group video chat service that works across its apps and even for people without accounts on the social network. Google made a free version of Meet, its service built for businesses (and cousin of a similar Google service called Hangouts). And don’t count out Apple’s FaceTime built into iPhones and Macs, Epic Games’ growing Houseparty and Microsoft’s old faithful Skype. There are even more Zoom clones focused on business, gaming and meeting new people.
So we decided it’s time for a video faceoff.
For the past week, we’ve been virtual chatty Kathys, giving a half-dozen different group videoconference apps the chance to win our hearts. We looked for the single best video chat app to bridge all aspects of our shelter-in-place existence, rather than work-focused systems (which are probably chosen by somebody else, anyway). We ran all six on problematic WiFi networks, graded clarity with an old-fashioned eye chart, and tested with people who have different tolerances for learning new software. We tried all the virtual backgrounds and special effects options we could find, from scenic caves to jaunty hats. And we studied privacy policies and consulted security experts.
It’s time to name some winners, which we dubbed the Chatty Awards. Our testing found some apps excelled in particular areas — so we’re giving out awards for technical categories that might matter to you, such as best picture quality, special effects and security.
Only one gets the top prize. Our big takeaways: The best communication tool is the one that works for the most people. And if you really want to trust software, you have to be willing to pay for it.
Best video quality: Skype
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.
A close runner-up was Zoom, which uses software smarts to up (or down) scale when needed. For example, it sends over an HD image when someone is looking at you in full screen mode.
That said, none of the apps could pass our toughest quality test: Making it possible to sing a group rendition of “Happy Birthday.” That slight but ever so annoying delay you notice is called latency, and while it’s also the fault of your device’s Internet connection, we couldn’t find any apps that seemed to improve it significantly.
Best special effects: Facebook Rooms
Sure, Zoom lets you insert yourself into a virtual background or clear up some wrinkles, but that’s nothing compared to the world of augmented-reality special effects.
Facebook Rooms come knocking with the best selection of filters that move with your face (a dog that is also a hat, goth makeup), immersive 360-degree backgrounds (fall into a ballpit, or a black hole) and physical games like competitive burger eating, where virtual burgers fly around that you grab with your mouth. Just note, they’re available only on Facebook’s mobile apps, not on the Web version of Rooms.
The effects are a great time killer with other people, if you can figure out the slightly confusing Rooms setup. For example, the Facebook app asks if you want to invite certain people to your Room … but then also suggests posting to all your friends on Facebook about the existence of your room. Facebook acknowledges its menus might be confusing, and says only the friends you’ve invited will see your post. But we’ve seen enough shenanigans like this from Facebook before.
Good news if you want to have fun without also feeding data to Mark Zuckerberg: The Snap Camera desktop app, made by the same company as Snapchat, is filled with special effects and works with apps that allow it. (Zoom recently stopped working with Snap Camera but is slowly adding it back.) Our favorite filter is one that makes you look like a potato.
Best privacy and security: Apple FaceTime
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.
There’s no way to add an extra password onto a chat, but the chance of random people crashing into your call is also low. You start a group FaceTime by sending an Apple Message to all the other people you want to talk to, and then tapping on their face icons at the top and looking for the FaceTime button. Then everyone can hop in and out of the call.
FaceTime is also the natural (if rather unexciting) choice for families with kids. It is one of the few apps that actually allows kids under 13 to set up special accounts. There are also parental controls to limit whom they can call and how long they can talk.
An alternative that works on different kinds of mobile devices is WhatsApp. While it’s owned by Facebook, its video calls are fully encrypted (which Facebook Rooms is not). But WhatsApp group calls don’t work well on PCs and Macs and are limited to just eight participants.
Best for a party: Houseparty
It says it right there in the name. Houseparty, which Fortnite maker Epic Games bought last year, is a funky little video chatting app made for having fun and maybe a drink with other people. There’s a desktop computer app, but the mobile version is where the real good times happen, with built-in games to fill in awkward silences, and the option to meet new people and split off into separate rooms if you find like-minded friends.
By far the most social of the video chat contenders, Houseparty invited celebrity guests to film segments any group could watch together, such as Idina Menzel flubbing the words to “Frozen” or Zooey Deschanel being Zooey Deschanel.
There’s no apologizing for forgetting to mute or sharing a PowerPoint presentation in this house, but there also isn’t much in the way of fun backgrounds or filters. This is a come as you are kind of party.
Honorable mention: Third-party tools are making it easier than ever to turn your video chat app of choice into a party. Jackbox.tv games, which include fun group competitions like creating funny T-shirts, work with any app that allows screensharing, like Skype, Zoom and Meet.
Best overall video chat app: Zoom
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.
What about Zoom’s security problems? We won’t know for a few months until they’ve stopped making changes — and until good (and bad) hackers have had a chance to thoroughly poke at it. But security experts we spoke with at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Consumer Reports and privacy software maker Disconnect agree it is moving in the right direction. Zoom already has changed some default settings to address “Zoom bombing” — when someone uninvited figures out the code to enter a meeting. (Now people joining calls by default go into a virtual waiting room.) It apologized for and fixed problems like routing some traffic through China. Some organizations that had banned Zoom, such as New York City Schools, have resumed using the app.
Many researchers we spoke with noted security and privacy issues are not unique to Zoom, and Consumer Reports has called out others using unclear language in privacy policies. But Zoom has been the quickest to respond and hire respected security and privacy leaders. Zoom calls are still not end-to-end encrypted, the gold standard for keeping snooping eyes out, but it has a timeline to move that way, at least for paying customers.
Most importantly: 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.