Who knew that video-conferencing apps would become such a big part of everybody’s lives so quickly? People around the world have swiftly pivoted from IRL socialising to Zoom, Houseparty, FaceTime, Skype and all the other video-chat apps out there.
But which is the best, which one should you be using to keep in touch with your friends, family and Tinder dates, and – with people switching away from Zoom due to security concerns – which apps will keep your conversations private? Here’s our ranking of the best free video-call apps around, including what you need to know about each.
What’s the best video app?
For the list below, we’ve considered a number of key factors for each app. These include how easy each app is to set up and use, how responsive it is (including its ‘latency’, or the amount of delay on the line), how many people can join a call, whether it uses end-to-end encryption for security, and whether it has any fun extra bells and whistles that can make video-calling feel less awkward.
Every app we’ve listed below is free to use in its basic form, though some have premium features that you can pay extra for.
How safe are video apps like Houseparty and Zoom?
Like every internet tool ever invented, video-calling apps have occasionally been exploited by bad people to do bad things – from sexual flashing to hacking bank accounts. As more and more people use video-conferencing, there have been reports of harmful and illegal behaviour on apps like Zoom, Whereby and Houseparty – all of which have robustly defended their technology’s security measures.
It is important to note that some apps use genuine end-to-end encryption, where only those involved in the conversation can watch or listen to the call. This means, in theory, that your conversations will only be heard by participants – not the companies who run the apps, the government or any nefarious hacker types. Other apps (including Zoom) do not offer genuine end-to-end encryption. If you’re worried about privacy, it’s worth making sure that you use an encrypted service. We’ve highlighted these below, based on what information is available right now.
Plus, whenever you’re using any of the apps below, remember to take basic security measures: don’t share your call details or account passwords anywhere public; lock your virtual ‘room’ and don’t admit strangers unless you’re sure you want to talk to them; don’t pass on personal or financial information via video call; and remember: you can hang up any time you want to. Happy chatting!
Every industry has its OGs, and Skype is the Coca-Cola, Micky Mouse and McDonald’s of video calling. This was probably the first video-conferencing app you used. Launched in 2003, it’s one of a handful of video-calling services that’s got ubiquitous enough to become a verb. But we bet nowadays the only person you Skype is your boss or your grandma.
Pros: Skype has been doing this a long time, and guess what: it works. Call it Ol’ Faithful. Also, it can call actual phones.
Cons: It feels a bit fiddly, it’s not as fun as other apps, and the fact it’s now part of Microsoft definitely makes it feel a bit… work-y.
Security: There’s no end-to-end encryption on regular calls, so you could be overheard. Hit ‘New Private Conversation’ to start an encrypted call.
Perfect for: Nostalgics pining for the days of MSN and AIM, only with extra awkward video moments.
#6: Google Duo
Did you know that Google has a dedicated app for video calls? Probably not. Duo isn’t that widely used, but it promises high-quality video calls with very low latency (that means high responsiveness), and is integrated nicely into other apps on Google Pixel phones. It works using your phone number, but you can only call contacts who are set up on Duo – which may not be that many of your friends.
Pros: You can leave video voicemails for people, and you get a preview of the person who’s calling so you can decide whether or not to ghost them.
Cons: You can only chat with other Duo users, which most people aren’t.
Security: End-to-end encryption is enabled by default, so your fascinating conversation should remain private.
Perfect for: Vid-quality perfectionists.
For Mac and iPhone users, FaceTime is an obvious choice: it comes pre-installed on your phone, computer or iPad. It can handle a session of up to 32, with everyone’s face bouncing around the screen in a little square. Its snazzy-ish video effects like text, shapes and stickers might float your boat.
Pros: It’s easy to use, and handily built into core bits of iOS like Messages and your contacts.
Cons: This one’s only for Mac and iPhone owners. Sorry, literally everyone else.
Security: FaceTime uses end-to-end decryption, so no one (including Apple) can listen in on your calls.
Perfect for: Apple users who only want to talk to other Apple users.
#4: Google Hangouts
Apart from Duo, Google has another app that lets non-business users video-chat – and you might be surprised by how simple it is. Hangouts lets you set up video or voice calls as well as send instant messages, and can be used by anyone with a Google account – that’s well over 1.5 billion people. There are no stickers or filters here: just dial someone up via their Gmail address and let the chinwag commence. You can also make free calls to any phone number within the US and Canada, and cheap ones elsewhere.
Pros: The video interface is super-simple, and it’s pretty quick and easy to set up a Google account. Plus, unlike some apps, you can screen-share.
Cons: You can’t really do anything fun with it: what you see is what you get. For non-business users, there’s also a limit of ten people per video call.
Security: There’s no end-to-end encryption – Google can store recordings of all your conversations.
Perfect for: No-frills-attached video chats, with more people and more devices allowed than WhatsApp video.
You probably know about Houseparty – everyone and their mother has downloaded it in the last month or so. Launched in 2016 and bought last year by Epic Games, the owners of Fortnite, it’s a primarily smartphone-based app (the web version is quite limited). Houseparty lets you hang out with up to 12 people in a virtual room, and play party games like Heads Up. You can see when people are online, and even gatecrash their chats with other people.
Pros: You might end up in a conversation with someone you don’t know – much like at an actual party.
Cons: Er, you might end up in a conversation with someone you don’t know. Lock the door to your ‘room’ if you’re not up for talking to strangers.
Security: Houseparty isn’t end-to-end encrypted, meaning the app creators potentially have access to your conversations.
Perfect for: Taking video-calling to another level: the games are actually pretty fun, and there’s more spontaneity than other apps.
Once, people Skyped; now, they Zoom. The ubiquitous video-conferencing tool of the day has spread out from offices and schools to become a part of everyday life. And it’s a solid choice, especially if you download the desktop app. Once you’re on a call, you can upload any picture as a custom background (from a calming beach to a photo of Justin Bieber), smooth out your skin using FaceTune-style effects, share your screen and see every participant at the same time, like in sci-fi movies. Best of all, up to 100 people can join a chat at the same time – so your whole gospel choir can practise together, as long as you’ve all got good wifi.
Pros: It’s got a truly powerful suite of features, there’s next to zero latency (delay), and increasingly huge numbers of people are already on the platform. Also a big plus: you can hide the thumbnail of your own face while you talk to people!
Cons: The browser version kind of sucks, and you’re pushed very hard to download the desktop app – which won’t be right for everyone.
Security: Zoom has come under fire for its security measures – the company claimed it was using end-to-end encryption, only for it to emerge that it could access call data and be forced to provide it to governments. So maybe don’t use it for anything that’s in any way sensitive.
Perfect for: Making video-chatting your new way of life.
Owned by Norwegian firm Videonor, Whereby is a friendly-looking alternative to the Californian tech giants. Its promise is to make video-calling easy: one person sets up a ‘room’ and anyone else (even totla technophobes) can join with just a simple web address. The downside of the easy ‘room’ names is that they can be easy to guess, but you can lock your chat to prevent unwanted intruders.
Pros: There are no app downloads necessary, and to host a chat, only one person needs to have an account – everyone else just uses a browser link.
Cons: The free plan only lets you have four people in a room, so you won’t be able to invite the whole crew. It’s also not the fastest out there.
Security: Chats on the free plan are transmitted peer-to-peer and encrypted, so (according to Whereby) nothing is stored in the company’s servers.
Perfect for: Anyone who feels like setting up a video call is too much of a faff. Seriously, it’s super-easy.