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How to find the best video conferencing apps

Here's what you need to consider to get the best experience when talking to friends and family online.

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Last updated: 07 July 2020

Now that we've all had some months to come to terms with the 'new normal', many people have been keeping in touch with friends online, resulting in the rise of the 'video chat'. 

But what are the best options to have a virtual catch-up outside of your work environment when you don't want to simply communicate, but enjoy each other's company?

What you need to get started

While you can hook up with a few people simply by downloading an app on your smartphone, the following things will help you get the best experience for video group chatting:

  • An internet connection, preferably 10 megabits per second or more.
  • A connected device with a camera – built-in or attached. This could be a smartphone, tablet or PC (Windows or Apple Mac), however the device you own may determine the video group app you can use.
  • A microphone – built-in or attached.

Keep in mind, video chat can use a lot of data. So if you have a limited data plan or you're using mobile internet (3G or 4G), keep an eye on your data use.

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What to look for in a video conferencing app

Privacy policy

The privacy policy may sound like as much fun as watching paint dry, but if you want to know what the app will be accessing and sharing, this is the place to start. There should be a link on the website, which is often buried at the bottom.

App ecosystem

You'll have a smoother experience if the video conferencing app is integrated with the other social networking or productivity apps you use. For example: if you and your friends all use the Apple ecosystem, then Group Facetime is worth a try. If you have Gmail and work on all the other Google apps, why not give Google Meet a try first? If you live on Facebook, then Messenger or WhatsApp are just a click away. Also, your sign-in ID may be the same as another app you use such as Facebook, Apple or Google.

Host location

Where the site is hosted could affect performance and security. Not many sites are hosted in Australia, but you may not want to go with an app that has its hosting in a country such as Bolivia or Iraq.

Speaker highlighting

Some apps provide a highlight bar or frame to let you know who is speaking, which can be handy when several people are in a group video chat.

Participant limit

Most apps have a participant limit – some have eight, others have 100 or more. There's also a maximum number of users shown on screen, which means the person speaking is front and centre, while others are watching but not seen by everyone else.

Virtual backgrounds

Virtual backgrounds can be placed behind you when you video chat, transporting you to an island or outer space. You can also add fun filters to appear as a warped cat or alien.

Host controls

Some apps have host controls, which let you mute or remove individuals in the group video meeting, which can be handy with larger gatherings.

Business features

The ability to record the meeting, share files and other people's screens, and download transcripts are all features that have been around in high-end business video conferencing apps and are now starting to appear in some of the free versions. 

Video chat etiquette

If you're not a regular user of video chat apps, here are some dos and don'ts on how to act. 

  • Carry out a test run with someone before you do that first catch-up with your friends or colleagues to ensure you look and sound your best. That way you won't burst onto the group video chat with full volume and video zoomed in on your left nostril. 
  • Don't keep your mic on when you're not speaking – know where the mute icon is on your screen and don't be afraid to use it. If it's your first time on video group chat, you may find yourself wondering what that irritating background noise is and realise it's you! 
  • Talking over each other may be fine at a cafe as you're acutely aware of breaks in conversation, but in a group chat this can quickly become a noisy mess. Wait for an obvious queue or use the chat facility to ask a question or comment, that way the other group members will be aware that you want to say something. 
  • Whether it's a casual chat with mates or an important work meeting, don't try to multitask during the session and think no-one will care or notice. With your face taking up a full tile, everything you do will be amplified, such as looking at a Facebook post or flicking through a magazine.