Video calling has seen an explosion in popularity since lockdown, becoming the preferred option for staying in touch with friends and family.
According to the latest research from price comparison company Uswitch.com, 19 million UK households are currently using video calling to stay in touch with one another during the Coronavirus pandemic, with 3.6 million of us using it for the first time.
The price comparison engine’s research also shows three million households are using video-calling to play games and quizzes with family and friends, while 2.5 million are using the technology for exercise classes.
However, usage does vary between regions. While nine in ten Londoners (93%) are using video-calling, less than six in ten (58%) people in Wales are choosing to communicate this way.
Says Nick Baker, broadband expert at Uswitch.com:
“Video-calling has seen an explosion in use during the lockdown, becoming the preferred option for staying in touch with families and friends for millions of us.
“But there are some significant differences between the services on offer, so it’s worth reading up on which app or website is right for your needs. Some free services restrict call times, while others limit the number of people which can be online at any one time.”
Here we look at seven of the of the best video conferencing apps around to suit your needs.
Zoom is particularly popular at the moment, and it’s available to use on both desktop and mobile devices. Zoom is really quite robust and includes features such as screen sharing, live annotations, custom backgrounds and strong encryption in both the free and paid versions.
The free version works well but does have some limitations — despite supporting calls of up to 100 participants it does limit those sessions to 40 minutes at a time (it can sometimes be very generous and extend those meetings for free, but there’s no way to guarantee on which occasions that will happen).
To use Zoom you can either download the app onto your mobile device or the software to your computer. Then simply register an email address and password to log in. Zoom also allows you to run it within a desktop window if you don’t want to download any new software.
It operates like a virtual meeting room rather than a ‘call’, so a Meeting ID and password are required to join as default. If you’re running it, make sure the other participants have all the details of your ‘room’!
To ‘skype’ someone used to be synonymous with video calling them, and that’s for good reason — the Microsoft-owned Skype has been one of the most popular video chat apps for years, offering up to 50-person conferencing completely free-of-charge.
Like Zoom, you can use the Skype app on your desktop or mobile device, or just use it within your browser. Services like screen sharing on mobile or live transcription/translation are available on paid versions only.
The best video calling apps to use on your mobile
If you just want to have a quick catch up with someone, it’s second nature to reach for your mobile phone, which can actually accommodate most video chat options these days. But here are some of the ones best suited to using on your mobile:
WhatsApp video calling
WhatsApp is one of the world’s most popular messaging apps. And while video calling isn’t its main feature, the fact that it’s available on one of the most-installed apps out there makes it incredibly accessible.
Messages and calls are encrypted, making it a secure way to chat, even with group video calls of up to four people.
Simply tap on the video call icon within your chats, located at the top of your screen. In a group chat, this will start a group video call, provided there are no more than four people in that particular chat.
Facebook Messenger is another Facebook-owned messaging app that supports video calling. It’s easy to use, has lots of fun features and is accessible to anyone with a Facebook account (which is about one billion people at last count).
Facebook Messenger supports video calls of up to eight people with no duration limit, switching to a peer-to-peer structure on two-person calls, skipping servers and potentially avoiding congestion.
FaceTime comes preinstalled on all Apple devices, making video calling incredibly easy and streamlined if you use an iPhone.
As well as supporting a number of fun features such as Animojis, Memojis and stickers, FaceTime allows up to 32 people to take part on a single call. And FaceTime Audio — the software’s voice call component — means you can route calls over data or Wi-Fi whenever you like.
Of course the biggest disadvantage of FaceTime is that it is only available to Apple users.
The best video calling apps for having fun online
Video calling these days isn’t always about meetings and conferences – we’re also using video calling more and more just for the fun of it. And when conversation starts to dwindle, these video calling apps have some fun features to keep you entertained.
Houseparty has been around for a while, but its popularity has boomed during the COVID-19 lockdown. Originally designed as an app for teens to use to hang out without leaving the house, Houseparty’s drop-in, drop-out group chat allows for a relaxed online social setting.
Once set up, which requires registering an email address, password and mobile phone number for confirmation, Houseparty notifies you whenever friends are online, or “in the house”. You can then invite them into a room to chat, or drop into a conversation they’re already having.
Houseparty itself is free, but there are games you can play such as Heads Up and a version of Pictionary, which cost a little extra.
One major problem is that the sudden popularity of the app has affected its video quality, but if you’re not searching for HD-quality chat it’s still a good option.
Discord is a great app for those who want to chat with their friends while gaming. The main focus of the app is audio, allowing players to chat to one another while streaming your screen to the rest of the group. Discord allows up to 50 people to join in a video call, and its paid option allows you to increase the streaming quality to 1080p/60 fps from 720p/30 fps on the free tier.
There are multiple plugins available to make the chat more interactive as well, including one that allows every user in the call to listen along to the same music at the same time.
The biggest disadvantage of Discord is the confusing interface. It’s great for tech-savvy gamers, but don’t try having a chat with your Grandma on this!
Uswitch’s guide to video-calling