The best free apps for video calling 2020

Technology


Things may be starting to open up, but for now, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to limit face-to-face association and most of us are still relying on video calls to keep in touch with work colleagues, family, and friends. And for most of us — especially those who are facing financial difficulties — free is best. Zoom continues to top the list of videoconferencing apps, but there are a bunch of applications out there that will allow you to meet others online for free.

We’ve listed a few of the best known videoconferencing apps, along with a couple of popular text chat apps that include video calling features. While most of these already have free versions, some are offering access to additional features for those who are currently working from home or who want to check up on friends and relatives online.

There are a number of apps we have not included, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and FaceTime, that allow you to do video chats. We’ve left them out because they require that all participants be members of a specific social network (Facebook, WhatsApp) or that you use a specific type of device (FaceTime, which is Apple-only). We’ve also tried to concentrate on applications that allow you to participate without having to download the app (unless you’re the host).

A good idea is to try one or two out for yourself to see how well they fit in with your style and those of your friends. This list is a good place to start.

The most popular video meeting app

Zoom is one of the most widely used video meeting apps.

Zoom is one of the most widely used video meeting apps.

Zoom has become one of the most well-known videoconferencing apps — in fact, its name is quickly becoming synonymous with video meetings. Before the pandemic hit, the company pushed Zoom mostly for corporate use, but it also provides a free basic version for individuals. At first, because Zoom didn’t expect its sudden popularity among non-business users, there were several missteps involving privacy and security; the company quickly instituted a number of changes and updates to address these issues.

The free version of Zoom allows up to 100 users to meet, but there is a 40-minute limit on meetings of more than two people, which can be pretty limiting. As of this writing, Zoom was not offering any special deals for those now working at home, but it does have a page offering help and advice to new users.

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: 100
  • One-on-one meetings: No time limit
  • Group meetings: 40-minute limit
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Record meetings: Yes

Skype Meet Now

A longtime go-to for online calls

Skype’s Meet Now feature supports up to 50 people with a four-hour time limit.

Skype’s Meet Now feature supports up to 50 people with a four-hour time limit.

Skype has been the go-to platform for one-on-one conversations since the beta was released in 2003. Its Meet Now feature (which is accessed by choosing the “Meet Now” button on the left side of the app) allows for videoconferencing; up to 50 people can meet with a generous four-hour time limit on meetings.

There is also a separate page that lets you create a free video meeting without having to actually sign up for the service. However, you get more features using the app, so if you’re okay with registering for a free account, you’re better off doing that.

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: 50
  • One-on-one meetings: No time limit
  • Group meetings: Four hours per call, 10 hours per day, 100 hours per month
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Record meetings: Yes

A corporate app with a solid freemium version

Webex, a videoconferencing app that has been around since the ‘90s, has a useful free version.

Webex, a videoconferencing app that has been around since the ‘90s, has a useful free version.

Webex is a videoconferencing app that has been around since the ‘90s; it was acquired by Cisco in 2007. While it’s been mainly known as a business application and continues to focus on serving companies, it does have a fairly generous free version that’s worth checking out. During the current pandemic, it has widened the features of the freemium version from 50 to 100 participants, and you can meet for up to 50 minutes.

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: 100
  • One-on-one meetings: 50-minute limit
  • Group meetings: 50-minute limit
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Record meetings: Yes

Now featured on your Gmail page

Meet offers a very simple and efficient way to video chat with colleagues, friends, and family — assuming they all have Google accounts, which is a requirement for both hosts and participants. In fact, Google is not only pushing people to use its Meet videoconferencing app instead of Zoom but also instead of its own soon-to-be-sundowned Google Hangouts app. (We previously included Google Hangouts in this roundup, but Hangouts users are now being actively urged from within the app to use Google Meet for their video chats.) You can find a Meet link in the Gmail app and in every appointment you make using Google Calendar.

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: 100
  • One-on-one meetings: 24-hour limit
  • Group meetings: 24-hour limit through June 28th, one-hour limit after
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Record meetings: No

Not just for business

Microsoft Teams was built as a competitor to Slack and is an especially good idea if you’re part of the Office ecosystem. While the application is mainly focused on business use, Microsoft has stepped out of its three-piece suit and unveiled a free personal version of Teams, which lets anyone chat, talk, or have video meetings — you just have to create an account with Microsoft in order to use it. Currently, due to the pandemic, Microsoft has extended the maximum number of participants from 100 to 300, and it has pushed the time limit from 60 minutes to 24 hours, which gives it an edge over most other free videoconferencing apps.

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: Normally 100; extended to 300 during pandemic
  • One-on-one meetings: Normally 60-minute limit; extended to 24 hours during pandemic
  • Group meetings: Normally 60-minute limit; extended to 24 hours during pandemic
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Record meetings: No

A mobile app best suited to one-to-ones

You don’t really expect Google to only offer one simple videoconferencing app, do you? Besides Google Meet, Google also has its mobile app Duo, which was built as a consumer app (whereas Meet was originally designed as a business app). While Duo was first touted as the app to use for one-to-one conversations and could only be used on phones, it now allows you to create groups of up to 32 participants and includes a web app. All participants must have Google accounts.

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: 32
  • One-on-one meetings: No time limit
  • Group meetings: No time limit
  • Screen sharing: Mobile only
  • Record meetings: No

A corporate meeting app with a free basic version

If you’re not a company, you may not have heard of StarLeaf. It’s really a platform for companies rather than individuals; its lowest-cost paid plan starts with five licenses suitable for a small business. But it is now offering a basic video and messaging product free of charge for those trying to keep in touch during the pandemic.

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: 20
  • One-on-one meetings: No time limit
  • Group meetings: 45-minute time limit
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Record meetings: No

Open source with plenty of features

Another “you probably haven’t heard of it” videoconference app, Jitsi Meet is an open-source platform that lets you easily meet online by simply navigating to the site and clicking on “Start meeting.” If you’re a developer, you can build your own conferencing app via Jitsi Videobridge, but most people will be happy with the quick web version, which offers many features found in more well-known apps, such as fake backgrounds, chat, session recording (to Dropbox), and the ability to “kick out” unruly participants.

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: 100
  • One-on-one meetings: No time limit
  • Group meetings: No time limit
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Record meetings: Yes

Single meeting rooms with up to 50 participants

Whereby’s free version gives you the use of a single meeting room with up to 50 participants, along with the ability to lock rooms (participants have to “knock” to gain entrance). Each room has its own URL that you get to choose, which is great — assuming that nobody else has already taken that name. (For example, I first tried whereby.com/testroom and found it was already taken.) But it also has a chat function, lets you share a screen, mute or eject users, and is currently offering a test version of breakout groups.

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: 50
  • One-on-one meetings: No time limit
  • Group meetings: 45-minute limit
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Record meetings: No

A wide range of free features

Glip Pro offers a nice range of features for a free video meeting app. It does insist that you have either a work email address or a Google account, and wants access to your contacts on that account. But if you’re good with that, you get 24 hours of meeting time (as long as you sign up by July), screen sharing, recording, chat, and virtual backgrounds, among others. It even offers closed captions (although, as with a lot of AI transcription software, some of the captions leave something to be desired).

Free version features

  • Maximum participants: 100
  • One-on-one meetings: 24-hour limit (for signups by July 2021)
  • Group meetings: 24-hour limit (for signups by July 2021)
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Record meetings: Yes

More alternatives

There is a wide range of other Zoom alternatives out there, including RemoteHQ, Talky, and 8×8 (which acquired Jitsi in 2018). Some of these don’t have a free version or the free version is very limited. For example, BlueJeans starts at $9.99 per month for unlimited-time meetings with up to 100 participants, while the free version of Zoho Meeting only permits a maximum of three participants, and Intermedia AnyMeeting allows four.

Slack is mainly set up for text chat, but it does give you the ability to make voice and video calls as well. If you’re on the free version of Slack, you can make a video call to an individual. But if you want to host a meeting between several people, as opposed to a one-on-one conversation, and want to do it for free, you’ll need to look for an alternative. Spike, an email service, also allows free one-to-one video calls.

There are also apps like Houseparty, which lets up to eight people use a virtual room to chat. In fact, anybody can drop into a friend’s online session without an invitation (although you can “lock” your room to prevent intruders). However, it does demand that all participants register in order to use it — and registration includes your name, email address, birthdate, and phone number. So we didn’t include it among our recommendations.

Update May 4th, 2021, 2:40PM ET: This article was originally published on June 11th, 2020. Since then, all entries have been updated; in addition, two apps have been dropped (Hangouts and Spike) and Glip Pro has been added.



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