In the era of COVID-19, video-chat programs are having a heyday as friends and relatives reach out to each other to stay connected. We put five popular programs through their paces and rated them on a five-star scale based on accessibility, security, privacy, and bells and whistles. All the programs are free and easy to use, and all encrypt calls, unless otherwise noted.
Skype ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Skype was one of the first video-chat programs, and it’s still one of the easiest and safest to use. Download the app to your smartphone or computer and, once you have a Skype account, you can start a video meeting and invite Skype contacts or share an automatically generated URL via text or e-mail. You can video chat with up to 25 people and view either a split screen of callers or a screen that automatically displays the primary speaker. Mobile and desktop users can screen-share and record and access subtitles of the conversation. Security is top-notch: Skype notifies participants when a call is being recorded and generates default file names that aren’t easily searchable should the video be posted on the web.
Google Hangouts ★ ★ ★ ★
If you’re looking for a program that can meet both social and professional needs, consider Google Hangouts. You’ll need a Google account, but you don’t have to be a G Suite customer in order to access group video chats with up to 25 people. During the call, you can toggle among users to choose which person has the largest display at any time. There is also a text feature on screen, so you can type to chat during the call, but there’s no video-recording feature. Download the Hangouts app for iOS or Android (also available at Google Play).
FaceTime ★ ★ ★ ★
FaceTime, which is included with Apple devices, is a quick and easy way to connect with family and friends, and it supports video chat with up to 32 people. The speaker’s image enlarges automatically during a call, which can help you keep track of who’s talking. The downside: You’ll need an iPhone 6s or newer, or another newer-generation Apple device, to participate in group calls with video. Older devices that support iOS 12.1.4 will join group FaceTime calls as audio participants.
House Party ★ ★ ★ ★
Zoom ★ ★ ★
Zoom may come to symbolize the zeitgeist of our shelter-at-home moment. Anyone can sign up for Zoom on its website and download the software to participate in video calls with as many as 100 people. The display is versatile, supporting both grid and primary speaker views. But we gave Zoom fewer stars because the free version has a 40-minute time limit on group calls. And Zoom has had trouble with hackers (known as zoombombers), who have added embarrassing content to group chats. Plus, hosts can record without users’ consent—although the program does notify users when they are being recorded. Thousands of Zoom videos were recently discovered online because saved videos are easily searchable. Encryption is available but must be enabled.
Emma Patch joined Kiplinger in 2020. She previously interned for Kiplinger's Retirement Report and before that, for a boutique investment firm in New York City. She served as editor-at-large and features editor for Middlebury College's student newspaper, The Campus. She specializes in travel, student debt and a number of other personal finance topics. Born in London, Emma grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Washington, D.C.
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