In the past, video conferencing services have been primarily directed at businesses, either to facilitate communication with remote workers or with far-flung clients and suppliers. With millions of people in lockdown, however, such software could help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness and allow people to celebrate Easter together, even as they remain apart.
Keep in touch with the best video conferencing software, while using a reputable VPN to ensure no uninvited guests gatecrash your conversation.
Video Conferencing Services For Everyone
Just a few minutes ago, rabbis in Israel made an unprecedented announcement, ruling that people could use electricity on the sacred Shabbat to overcome isolation caused by social distancing directives.
The Jerusalem Post reported that rabbis had agreed to allow the use of electricity so people could use the video-conferencing software, Zoom, to celebrate Seder night. Traditionally, the entire family would congregate around a single table, sharing special foods and celebrating the “covenant between God and Israel”.
As this is not possible in the current crisis, rabbis are “permitting the use of Zoom under the stated restrictions” which are that people turn on both their electronic devices and Zoom before the holidays begin.
Similar stories are emerging from around the world and hundreds of thousands of people are turning to video conferencing solutions like Zoom to “host parties, concerts, church services, and art shows”. People are conducting tarot card readings and going on blind dates, while college students are doing everything from attending lectures to indulging in beer pong competitions on video conferencing platforms.
The best video conferencing apps are cheap, if not free, easy to install, and require little more than a reliable internet connection to get started.
What is Video Conferencing?
Do you remember when VoIP services like Skype first came on the scene and we were all caught up in the novelty of being able to video chat with people on the other side of the world? So what is video conferencing? It’s pretty much the same – audio and moving pictures in real-time – with the main difference being that you can invite multiple people to join in.
Webopedia’s succinct definition for video conferencing states, “Video conferencing means to conduct a conference between two or more participants are different sites by using computer networks to transmit audio and video data”.
There are two basic types of video conferencing:
- Point to point video conferencing – each person uses an individual microphone, camera, and speakers to communicate
- 2 Multipoint video conferencing – several participants meet in a virtual conference room and conduct the meeting as if they were sitting next to one another.
The best video conferencing software gives users free access to point-to-point video conferencing, but virtual conference rooms are also made available for a monthly fee. Virtual conferencing rooms make it easier for multiple people to join a meeting, share information, and engage in traditional conferencing activities, like brainstorming on a virtual whiteboard.
For most of us, point-to-point video conferencing is all we need and gives up the ability to meet with up to 100 people without leaving the safety of our homes.
How to Use Video Conferencing Systems
Zoom may not work in precisely the same way as other video conferencing solutions, like Blue Jeans or Lifesize, but getting the process of getting started with any home video conferencing system is much the same. As many video conferencing tools offer a free service, you don’t even need to set up payment details before you start hosting meetings or joining in other people’s remote social events. Just follow these simple steps:
1. Sign up
Head over to your chosen video conferencing service’s website and click on ‘Sign up’. Most will ask you to enter your name and email address, and after which, a confirmation email is sent to your inbox. Following the instructions in the message, you can now create a password-protected account, and even invite others to sign up for the service if you’ve already got a group of friends and family you want to meet up with. Alternatively, you can skip this step and come back to it later.
2. Download the App
Before you can start hosting or attending meetings, you need to select the best video conferencing app for your device. The best video conferencing software, like Zoom, Lifesize, and Webex, are compatible with all major operating systems, including |Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, and Windows. Some services, like Lifesize, will let you join or even host meetings without signing up for the service, giving you a temporary guest login with which to join via either a standard web browser or through a Lifesize app.
3. Set up Your Webcam
Most laptops have an in-built webcam whereas desktop devices may rely on an external webcam. Either way, you should be able to adjust the settings to allow your video conferencing software to access your webcam. We’ll get to the intricacies of internet security and how to safeguard your webcam from hackers a little later.
4. Become a Virtual Social Butterfly
With most video conferencing services, you can host a meeting simply by creating a New Meeting and sending out invites to those friends or family members you want to attend. Joining a meeting can be done with a single click and you can send text messages and chat easily while using calendar services like Outlook or Google Calendar to keep track of meetings scheduled for the future.
The Best Home Video Conferencing Solutions
While some video conferencing services lend themselves to personal use, others are less flexible so, even if the system you’re looking at is considered the best by multinational companies all over the world, it may not be ideal for catching up with your grandma. Ease of use and cost are both important considerations, as are cross-platform compatibility and any additional technical requirements.
Remember, if you want to use video conferencing tools to keep in touch with family and friends, you want a service that’s easy to install and simple to use so everyone can get to grips with it and avoid being left out.
Created in 2011, “Zoom’s reliability and simplicity has made it the “standard” in videoconferencing software”. On Zoom’s basic free plan, you can have a 40-minute party with 100 people or an in-depth chat with your parents. Hold as many meetings are you like and enjoy high-definition audio and video, and the ability to split off into smaller groups if you’re meeting’s getting out of hand. If you want to share the conversation with someone who was unable to attend, Zoom will save a transcript of the entire meeting and save it either as an M4A or MP3 file within your local storage.
All Zoom communications are encrypted with the latest AES 256-bit encryption so no uninvited guests can burst in and disrupt your meeting. Zoom also has a strong help section online and a range of customer support services available, including daily free live training seminars.
The highlights of Zoom’s video conferencing service are:
- Ease of use
- High-quality video and audio
- Lightweight apps available for most operating systems
- Instant messaging and file-sharing available
- Integrated scheduling with calendar apps like Gmail and Outlook
- Transcripts and recordings available
- End-to-end encryption
BlueJeans doesn’t have a free tier available, although users can test some services for 30 days without making a payment. More geared towards businesses than Zoom, BlueJeans nevertheless gives users one-touch access from a wide variety of devices and uses Dolby voice for a superior audio experience.
For those looking for a robust and reliable home video conferencing facility, Blue Jean’s entry-level subscription is ideal, giving you unlimited one-to-one and group meetings, one-touch access, and screen sharing capabilities.
BlueJeans offers users the following video conferencing tools and benefits:
- Real-time transcription
- Mobile conferencing, including iOS and Android screen-sharing
- AES 256-bit encryption and meeting locking security features
- No restrictions on how long meetings can last
- Smart meeting reports
- Launch meetings from integrated messaging apps like HipChat and Slack
- 24/7 live chat customer support.
Like Zoom, Lifesize offers users a free cloud-based video conferencing service that provides more collaborative features than Zoom but limits users to just eight participants per video call and 25 per meeting. That’s where the limitations end, however, and users can hold a meeting for up to 24 hours if they want to.
Lifesize uses the latest 4K video conferencing system which means the quality is excellent, although that might make you want to about lighting for video conferencing a bit more seriously to make sure you’re using lighting that illuminates the face and minimizes distractions.
Unlike Zoom, every meeting you have with Lifesize is automatically encrypted, with AES 128-bit encryption activated as default on all video calls and the military-grade AES 256-bit encryption applied to all data at rest.
Although Lifesize has some of the best video conferencing apps available for everything from Android to Windows, you can also sign up directly from your web browser if you want to.
This attractive, user-friendly video conferencing service is, like Lifesize, browser-based so you don’t need to install an app to use it. You can also use Webex as a simple audio communications system by calling in from your phone.
Webex’s free home video conferencing solutions are a little limited, although they have expanded the service to deal with the increased demand during the current pandemic. Users can now invite up to 100 people to a meeting, instead of 50, and meet for as long as they want whereas before they were limited to 40 minutes.
End-to-end AES 256-bit encryption is available but not automatically activated in the default settings. Although you don’t need an app, if you want one, Webex has plenty, including some compatible with wearable devices like the Apple Watch.
Webex benefits from a slick design and high-quality video that will have you, once again, worrying about the lighting for video conferencing.
Another video conferencing tool that has focused on simplifying collaboration is the lesser-known HighFive. Again, no video conferencing software is necessary to make the most of this virtual meeting place and there are no limits on how many people can attend or how long the meeting can last.
HighFive plays well with others and even other video conferencing services, offering seamless integrations for users of Zoom, Webex, Blue Jeans, and Lifesize. Anyone can screen share from any device, regardless of whether they have a HighFive app installed or not, which means you could have a school reunion without having to get everyone to download and install the software.
Good security, flexibility and ease of use make HighFive a robust and secure video conferencing option but, unfortunately, not a cheap one. HighFive’s basic plan costs $199 per month for one virtual meeting room, although you can at least enjoy 30 days of free service under its money-back guarantee.
How Secure is Video Conferencing?
As with any online activity, video conferencing is littered with vulnerabilities and potential security issues. A security flaw in Zoom that was exposed last year meant that cybercriminals could access users’ webcams and access them “without the user giving any explicit consent”. As a result, users could be “instantly dropped into a Zoom meeting”, giving everyone else present a full view of their office or home.
Some video conferencing software uses a process known as “attention tracking” to establish if all participants are paying attention and notifying the host if they click away from the app for 30 seconds or more. While this may not sound like a serious security flaw, it has been criticized by organizations like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) because it enables the video conferencing service to “bypass browser security settings and remotely enable a user’s web camera without the knowledge or consent of the user”.
Similarly, some video conferencing tools collect swathes of data about both its users and anyone who pops in for a meeting as a guest. This information may include personally identifiable information like your name, address, job title, credit card information, IP address and Facebook account.
Get Secure Video Conferencing with a VPN
While the best antivirus software can mitigate some of those security concerns by blocking access to your webcam, a VPN offers a robust solution, hiding your IP address, encrypting your conversations, preventing the collection and retention of data, and hiding your activity from your ISP to avoid bandwidth throttling.
Although VPNs use sophisticated technology to boost your online security, they’re surprisingly easy to use and, if this is your first foray into this particular cybersecurity tool, you can find out everything you need to know about VPNs right here.
Inevitably, choosing the right VPN for your needs and your pocket is important and many of us will first consider the option presented by free VPNs. While some completely free VPNs do a decent job of masking your IP address, they are usually limited in terms of connection speeds or server access. There are one or two services, like ProtonVPN and ZenMate, that have decent free options available, in general, the best VPN services are those that you have to pay for.
If you’re trying to celebrate your birthday with an online party for 50 people, you’ll want a fast connection. Unfortunately, many VPNs will slow you down as they encrypt and channel your traffic through the VPN tunnel. In such situations, a VPN that combines cutting-edge encryption with high speeds, like ExpressVPN, is crucial.
Fortunately, there are some cheap VPN providers out there, like Surfshark and ZenMate for example, that use the latest encryption and security protocols to keep your conversations private and to preserve your anonymity online.
While most video conferencing services use some kind of encryption to deter cybercriminals, peeping Toms, and eavesdroppers, VPN encryption is usually more advanced and more robust, especially if you opt for a VPN provider like NordVPN, which is known for its superior security. Want to know more about encryption and how it works? Check out our complete guide to VPN encryption.
Some VPNs allow you to connect as many devices as you want, while others restrict you to five or seven simultaneous connections. While most include a kill switch that will cut your internet connection the moment the VPN connection drops, others offer adblockers and split tunneling and still others, like CyberGhost, focus on protecting you on vulnerable public Wi-Fi networks.
The best VPNs for public Wi-Fi are those that automatically connect as soon as they detect an unsecured connection. CyberGhost, for example, lets users customize the settings so it will either ask, ignore, or protect you according to your preferences.
The type of device you plan on using for video conferencing will affect which VPN is most suitable. The best VPNs for smartphones and tablets, for example, aren’t necessarily the same as for Apple Watches or Windows desktops. Having said that, if you’re looking for reliability, global connectivity, high-speed connections, a commitment to user privacy and the latest security measures, ExpressVPN is by far the best choice.
We may need to be socially distant or completely isolated, but that doesn’t mean we have to disengage from our friends and family and emotionally distant, especially not with such an abundance of video conferencing services available.
Maybe you want to create a virtual prayer group so you can keep in touch with other members of your congregation without going to church. Perhaps you simply want to celebrate Easter with your family or throw a party to honor your mum’s 40th birthday.
Whoever you want to engage with, whether it’s just a distant family member or an entire classroom of people, using video conferencing software is, at present, the best and safest way to go about it.
You don’t have to invest in the latest software or upgrade your machine to enjoy a spot of video conferencing either, although being aware of the security issues and potential vulnerabilities is important, as is using a VPN to prevent those liabilities from being exploited.
Secure video conferencing options are the best choice, but they need to be simple enough for all your family to get along with, otherwise, the more technologically challenged will be left out. WB Yeats once said, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”, but this is more a case of choose carefully because this is your only chance at socializing over the next few weeks and, without it, you could be left isolated, listening to nothing louder than your own inner voice.