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Talk is cheap: How to get started on free video conference tools

The coronavirus pandemic has forced office staff to work from their homes, often with very little preparation. But a host of online video calling services can help them stay in touch, writes Adrian Weckler

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Staying connected: Zoom, Hangouts, Skype and Whereby have given office workers a vital link to others during the Covid-19 crisis

Staying connected: Zoom, Hangouts, Skype and Whereby have given office workers a vital link to others during the Covid-19 crisis

Staying connected: Zoom, Hangouts, Skype and Whereby have given office workers a vital link to others during the Covid-19 crisis

Has the whole office been sent home to work? Is anyone organising any proper online meetings? By now, we've all heard of Zoom, Teams and Hangouts. But most of us still only feel natural on a video call when it's from a family member on FaceTime or WhatsApp.

Is it hard to set up Zoom or Skype? What about alternatives like Hangouts or Whereby?

Whether you're a small business owner, a line manager or a sole trader who needs to set up sessions with clients, here's a beginner's guide to setting up the most used video conferencing services.

1. Zoom

Ease-of-use score: 7

This is definitely easier to set up and use on a touchscreen device such as an iPad or smartphone than it is on a laptop.

How to get it

App (free on iPhone, iPad, Android) or zoom.us for a laptop (which will require you to download Zoom's PC or Mac software).

Can you use it straight away?

No. After downloading the software (laptop or app), you need to sign up to the service with your email address, or your Google or Facebook identity.

How to call someone or start a group meeting/session

For a beginner, this will take a few minutes. So I'll break the basics into several steps.

I'll assume you're using a laptop. Where these steps differ with phones or iPads, I'll point it out.

(i) You have to 'schedule a meeting'. On a laptop, when logged in at zoom.us, click 'meetings' and then click 'schedule a new meeting'.

Fill in some basic details and then click 'start this meeting'.

It will say it wants to launch the Zoom software and, when that happens, you'll see the online session begin with your own face. (If you don't see your face, click 'start video' in the bottom left-hand corner.) If you're already in the Zoom software, click the button that says 'new meeting'.

If you're using an iPad or smartphone instead, and you're starting on Zoom's website, it's the same process as above except it will launch the app instead of the laptop software.

(ii) Now click the 'invite' button. This will give you the crucial web link to the online meeting.

Other people need to have this link to access the meeting/session.

(iii) Send that link to others you want in the call.

You can either do this yourself (by copying and pasting the link into your messenger or email) or Zoom will offer to email it for you through whichever email provider you prefer (such as Gmail).

(iv) When others click or tap on the link, they're in.

When recipients click or tap on that link on their phones, iPads or laptops, it will open the Zoom app or Zoom laptop software.

They're now in the session and you should all see each other (unless you want it to be audio-only - everyone has an on/off switch for the webcam).

How many people can take part?

Up to 100. But this only works for up to 40 minutes per individual meeting (call) if there are more than two of you (it's unlimited for one-to-one calls). For longer, you have to upgrade to the 'pro' level, which is €15 per month.

However, only one person on the call has to have the pro membership for everyone on the call to stay on for more than 40 minutes.

Extra features that are useful

You can share your screen with others on the call, including presentations, documents or web-based files.

You can also record the entire meeting straight to your laptop (cloud recording is available for pro subscribers).

And you can also create a green screen background and put in any of your own photos as a backdrop.

If you're the strict type, you can also see whether people are paying attention to you when you share a document with them (you have to enable this feature in your settings).

Best thing about it

It has the most features and the most control of any free, popular video conferencing service.

And it's now becoming one of the go-to services for workers who have suddenly found themselves outside a physical office.

Limitations

While Zoom is definitely one of the best, its whole set-up is a little administrative.

You have to 'schedule a meeting' (with a page full of forms and tick boxes) just to start a call.

This may be second nature to white-collar types who spend their lives on laptops, but will feel a little complicated or administrative to smartphone-first users.

Also, on laptops, it really wants you to use Google Chrome as a browser.

This means that some features (such as microphone support) may not work reliably on a MacBook Safari browser, I have found.

And remember that for sessions with more than two people, you will be cut off after 40 minutes unless the host of the call has a €15-per-month pro status.

(Obviously, if you don't want to pay, you can just finish on 39 minutes and start another call.)

Devices you can use it on

PC, laptop, iPad, Android tablet, smartphone. Most of these have a webcam and microphone built in.

But as some desktop PCs do not, you may need to plug in an external webcam or microphone.

2. Google Hangouts

Ease-of-use score:

8 (laptop); 6 (smartphone/tablet).

How to get it

App (free on iPhone, iPad, Android) or online at hangouts.google.com.

Can you use it straight away?

If you're already signed in to your Google account on your laptop, phone or tablet, yes. If not, you need to sign in.

(If you don't have a Google or Gmail account, you will need to sign up for one of these.)

How to call someone or start a group meeting/session

On a laptop, it's simple. Go to hangouts.google.com and you'll see a screen that prompts you with clear, straightforward options: 'video call', 'phone call' or 'message'.

Click or tap 'video call' and it will immediately start a video session with you in it. It will then ask you to 'invite people' by email.

It will also offer a link ('copy link to share') that you can message, or text or email, to others.

Anyone who taps or clicks on that link will join the online video call, whether or not they have a Google account themselves.

How many people can take part?

Up to 25 on one video hangout.

Best thing about it

It's free and there are no time limits on individual calls or sessions.

Most people already have a Gmail or Google account, so it's probably the easiest service to start from scratch on a laptop.

Extra features that are useful

You can share your screen with others on the session.

Limitations

If you're starting from scratch on a phone, tablet or iPad, it's a mediocre user interface.

There's no obvious way to immediately kick off a video call in the same straightforward way as from a laptop.

Also, Google does a poor job differentiating its Hangouts service from Google Meet, which adds extra features (such as up to 100 people on the same call) for paying G Suite customers.

Devices you can use it on

You can use it on almost any laptop, smartphone or tablet.

3. Skype

Ease-of-use score: 6

How to get it

As an app (all mobile platforms and Mac) or as laptop software online at Skype.com.

Can you use it straight away?

Nearly.

Depending on what device you're using, you'll need to sign in with your Microsoft account details.

You may be prompted to download further software.

How to call someone or start a group meeting/session

Launch the app or software and click 'meet now'.

Skype will show you a link it has generated and offer to invite others to the call for you.

You can copy and paste the link yourself if you want to message them via some other way.

How many people can take part?

Up to 50 on the free version.

Extra features that are useful

You can share your screen.

Best thing about it

Because it's been around so long, it's likely that at least some of your contacts already have an account. Fifty users is also a pretty generous number given that Microsoft isn't usually in the business of giving things away cheaply or for free.

Limitations

Unfortunately, unlike its hardware, Microsoft makes this a lot trickier than it need be for those who haven't used this tool before.

It has what amounts to a confusing array of related products if you're a beginner, including Skype for Business and Teams.

A starter will struggle to tell these options apart, let alone explain to colleagues what they can or can't do between each product.

It also asks that you use Chrome or Microsoft Edge if you want to use it online.

Devices you can use it on

Almost any laptop, smartphone or tablet.

4. Whereby

Ease-of-use score: 9

This is definitely the easiest service to use from scratch.

How to get it

As an app (all mobile platforms) or online directly.

Can you use it straight away?

Yes. If you're using a laptop, there's no further software to download.

How to call someone or start a group meeting/session

Just give recipients your personalised whereby.com URL (it asks you to create one when you sign up; you can use your name, if you like).

How many people can take part?

Up to four on the free version.

Extra features that are useful

You can share your screen (and also YouTube videos).

Best thing about it

Its simplicity and ease to set up. There's simply no fiddling around with settings or wrong browsers.

And giving you your own meeting room URL is fantastic.

It cuts out all sorts of delays, typos and missed connections that can happen easily with the other services.

Limitations

A limit of four users for the free version is pretty miserly compared with other services.

And the more affordable of the premium tiers (€9 per month) still only lets you add 12 users per meeting - it's a whopping €50 per month to add more (up to 50 users per meeting).

It also charges way more for things like recording than services such as Zoom.

Devices you can use it on

Almost any laptop, smartphone or tablet.

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