Since physical reality isn’t such a popular place to interact during the baneful rise of COVID-19, different video calling apps have been garnering a lot of attention lately. Since there’s a good chance you might be using one, it’s worth weighing the pros and cons beforehand, so you can stay easily and securely connected — and enjoy some fun features, too.

What makes a good video chat app?

Usability is important, but sometimes that doesn’t pair well with security. Or maybe you’ve got fun features, but not a lot else. To find the best video chat app for your needs, it’s good to find one that balances the following things.

Usability

Is it simple to make, receive, and invite people to calls? Is the app compatible with other operating systems? It’s also worth considering if it’s widely used, so you don’t have to get people to download it first.

Security

Are the calls end-to-end encrypted? This means that only you and the person you’re talking to can see your communication. Even the companies themselves can’t unscramble the messages, which is something that should be mandatory for any good messaging app today. And the less data they collect about you, the better.

Extra features

What are the unique or even fun benefits of using a particular app?

» FaceTime

Let’s start with FaceTime, the app that’s built into Apple devices – iPhone, iPad, and MacOs. “FaceTiming” has basically become synonymous with any video chat communication – much as Google has for searching. FaceTime can be accessed directly through the app or during iPhone calls.

Pros:
  • You can have up to 32 people in a FaceTime call.
  • It’s totally free.
  • As for security, calls are end-to-end encrypted.
Cons:
  • FaceTime is only available between users of Apple devices, so some of your friends may be left out. 

Like many other big tech companies, Apple doesn’t have the best record on user privacy and does collect customer metadata, which includes abstract information like who you communicated with, what time you called, and more.

» Skype

Skype is another brand that has grown so iconic that its name gets applied as a verb, and often when using other apps that aren’t Skype. Some basics: Skype has a free and a paid version and can be used on desktop and mobile devices. Since it’s owned by Microsoft, it can also be used on any Xbox video game console. 

Pros:
  • You can have up to 50 people in a video call.
  • To keep you secure, Skype uses encryption automatically when you call another Skype account. 
  • You can easily send a few emojis to the person you’re talking to. 
  • Skype is widely compatible: available on Windows, Android, MacOS and iOS devices, and Linux as well. That means even if you have an Android phone you can still Skype with an iPhone user.
Cons:
  • While you can also make regular telephone calls with Skype (where you do have to pay normal calling fees), the encryption doesn’t apply when you’re using Skype to call actual mobile or landline phones. 
  • As already mentioned, Skype is owned by a big tech company, Microsoft, which has collaborated with intelligence agencies in the past to circumvent user privacy.

» Zoom

The corporate video-conferencing platform Zoom has struck a new vein of popularity thanks to the COVID-19 quarantine. In the last three months, its user base has grown from 10 million to 200 million. It’s something of a mini-phenomenon how the platform is suddenly attracting more attention and controversy than a wayward celebrity.

Pros:
  • Zoom allows the most participants of any app discussed in this article. On a free and basic paid plan, up to 100 people can join a single call. 
  • Allows you to schedule meetings ahead of time. 
  • It has fun interchangeable backgrounds that green-screen users into fantasy lands.
  • There is a “Waiting Room” feature, so the meeting’s host can see potential participants before they join the meeting. 
Cons:
  • If you’re using Zoom’s free plan, group calls that you start can only last 40 minutes. However, if the host of the meeting has a paid account, then the meeting can last longer for any joining participants.
  • Security issues. The recent spotlight Zoom’s been under has brought up various security concerns. Zoom’s encryption was discovered to not be as strong as expected. Another concern was that they were sending data to Facebook – but they did recently put a stop to that. Interlopers were also found disturbing – or “Zoom-bombing” – private meetings. However, Zoom has quickly tackled security concerns by now requiring passwords for every meeting and turning on the Waiting Room feature by default.

» Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger is an immensely popular mobile messaging app that recently put out a new, free version for desktops as well. 

Pros:
  • The original mobile version of the app allows 50 people in a call (six visible on screen).
  • Many people have Facebook messenger, which makes it a nearly effortless way to video chat with people you are already connected with. 
  • There is a slew of fun, goofy, face-altering special effects to play with. 
 Cons: 
  • The new desktop version only allows up to eight participants in a video call. 
  • A sizable security downside is that Messenger calls are not encrypted by default, unless you turn on the “secret conversation” feature. 
  • As always, when we talk about Facebook, we have to note that the privacy concerns around the company’s practices remain everlasting and are more troubled than most other apps. 

If you want a Facebooky version of Zoom, they also have their own conferencing app called Facebook Workplace.

» WhatsApp

WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook, is a popular app for using Wi-Fi to send texts and make both audio and video calls to phone numbers.

Pros: 
  • WhatsApp calls are end-to-end encrypted.
  • It’s free to use. 
  • It has a big user base already, so you shouldn’t receive too many blank looks when asking someone to call you on WhatsApp. 
Cons:
  • Only allows up to four people in a group video chat.
  • Though the content of your communications is encrypted, WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, a company which makes excessive use of user data.

» Signal

Signal is a secure messaging app that works much like WhatsApp, but comes highly recommended by security-minded folks, including NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden. 

Pros: 
  • Video calls are end-to-end encrypted. 
  • As one of the most secure messaging apps on the market, the company does not collect customer data. 
  • Signal is available for Android and iOS mobile devices. 
Cons:
  • At the moment video calls are only one-on-one. 
  • Fewer people have adopted Signal as some of the older, more well-known apps mentioned above, so you may have to ask your friends to download it first. 
  • Signal is only available on mobile devices.

» Google Duo

Google has more subdivided apps than anyone can really keep track of, and they now have an app specifically for video calling: Google Duo. Duo is similar to Hangouts, but with better security. 

Pros:
  • End-to-end encryption. 
  • Compatible with Windows, Android, MacOS, and iOS devices.
  • Basic video calls include up to 12 people. 
  • It has high definition calls. 
  • There is a “Knock-Knock” feature which shows you a video preview of the person that’s calling you before you pick up. 
Cons:
  • Google has one of the worst privacy reputations on the market. Though your calls are encrypted, Google makes use of various user metadata whenever it can. 
  • Google Duo isn’t as popular as some of the aforementioned apps, so you may have to convince your friends to adopt yet another Google product.

Stay connected and secure

Being able to see and speak to people over video, especially when you’re stuck at home, can really make you feel less alone. Since different apps are being quickly adopted, it’s good to compare them and remember which ones will keep your communications safe, while you find which app is best suited to your needs. If you do need to use one of the less secure apps for whatever reason, you can still improve your privacy with a VPN, which encrypts your internet connection on your computer and phone.

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