For many, 2020 was the first time they heard about a video chat app called Zoom — a not-so-little online platform that swiftly became one of the most popular options for videoconferencing in the world.
If you are still looking for a video app to fit your situation, Zoom is a streamlined contender. Let’s take a look at how it works, and if it’s a good choice to use for personal or professional video chatting.
Zoom is a videoconferencing service operating on a cloud platform that allows you to connect with others who are also using the service. It supports both video and audio-only conferencing, enabled by the mics and webcams that are on your devices (or can be purchased for more specific tasks). Zoom became a popular choice for quick videoconferencing due to its simplicity and light digital footprint, which made it easy to pick up and learn for those unfamiliar with video chatting. It’s also compatible with Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, and Linux.
Zoom functions much like other professional video chat apps. You have an option to immediately start a conference and send invites to other Zoom users, usually through an email that includes a link to the meeting and other ID information. You can also choose to schedule a future meeting and send out invites early so that everyone can put it on their schedules and be prepared.
When in a meeting, users have access to basic tools that allow them to mute or unmute themselves and turn video on or off as needed, although the host retains the greatest amount of control when it comes to organizing and muting. These meetings can function either as a one-on-one chat or to support dozens of people at once for a group discussion.
While Zoom is designed to enable a smooth video feed, the actual quality of a video call still depends primarily on the internet connection itself. Zoom only works with what you have, and considerations like Wi-Fi signals or bandwidth are still important.
Zoom has a variety of more in-depth tools to help out with specific tasks. Some of the most important include:
- A chat window for both group and individual chats while the video conference is live (with some emoji support included).
- The ability to share a desktop or an individual window when showing an example or helping someone complete a task.
- A whiteboard for drawing, annotation, brainstorming, etc.
- An indicator that someone has “raised their hand” as a way of signaling a question without needing an audio cue.
- Closed captioning with subtitles for clarification and translation solutions.
- Options for using a virtual background.
- A quick poll tool to gauge opinions or issue quick quizzes.
- A “Touch Up My Appearance” mode that can help fix unwanted looks due to webcams or other issues.
- The ability to support existing virtual conference room systems from companies like Cisco and Polycom.
- Ways to record and save a video meeting afterward as a guide or for future reference.
- Oh, and they’ve got a special display you can buy, too.
These features are available to everyone, and not locked behind any subscriptions or paywalls — although some of them may take practice to use for those who are unfamiliar.
When using a video chat service, especially for professional purposes, security is a top priority. You may have already heard about issues with “Zoom bombing” and other situations where people have been able to hack into Zoom meetings and show unwanted content or hijinks.
Zoom put in a lot of work in 2020 to update its security measures and keep things like this from happening. The result is AES 256-bit GCM encryption, denoted by a small green shield icon in the Zoom chat window that lets you know it’s working. Invites with meeting keys are encrypted as well. There’s also a security tab where people can report users directly to Zoom and get them temporarily removed from the meeting and potentially blocked permanently.
While those measures were put in place by mid-2020, Zoom was also working on a more ambitious security alternative that began rolling out in October 2020. This focuses on new end-to-end encryption (E2EE) using public key cryptography to protect meeting keys even more thoroughly and completely prevent Zoom’s servers from accessing any meeting. All users must have end-to-end encryption enabled when joining a meeting that requires it, although it does block certain functions like the ability to record meetings or do live transcriptions.
Finally, Zoom now has a bot that scans for Zoom meeting keys that have been posted in public places and sends alerts to account owners that the meeting could be in danger of being compromised, and tells them how to get a private key to users to help fix the issue.
These changes have largely erased any repeating security issues for the app, so it remains a viable option for professional settings.
Zoom is free to download and use, but there are pricing tiers to expand what you can do with the app. The free version allows for up to 100 participants in a meeting and unlimited meeting options for one-on-one chats. However, group meetings are restricted to only 40 minutes at the max, and you can’t stream or use their cloud recording option.
The Pro package, which costs $150 annually per license, removes the time limit from all meetings, allows social media streaming, and gives you a gigabyte of storage for cloud recording.
The Business package, at $200 annually per license, bumps up limits to 300 participants, allows for full cloud recording with transcripts, supports managed domains, and includes options for company branding.
There is also a United plan for $300 annually per license, which adds a phone plan for businesses interested in enabling VoIP connections as well.
Zoom is available as a mobile app. However, videoconferencing tools are much more limited in the mobile form, so it functions as a more simplistic video chat app (like FaceTime). It’s still useful for quick chats and personal meetings, but if you need more of the professional features for work or school, it’s best to stick with the desktop app.
How does Zoom compare to other popular alternatives? This is a tough question because so much depends on experience and specific use cases. We mentioned that Zoom is easy to pick up for new users, and that’s certainly an advantage — but as a general rule, it’s best to stick with the platform that all users know best, rather than pushing an unnecessary app.
Zoom is a strong contender for organizations and people that simply haven’t used a video chat service before, and need something that’s easy to adopt and has the basic features that they want — and with a very usable free option that can help save money if necessary.
For more specialized purposes, other apps may be better. If your organization already uses Microsoft’s Office 365, then Microsoft Teams is probably simpler to incorporate into your schedule while retaining admin control options (although Zoom can be used as an add-in). If you are looking for a dedicated app for teaching, then nothing really compares to the education features and training that Google Meet has rolled out.
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