An illustration of two people using a videoconferencing service.

For many of us, videoconferencing is part of daily life. We use it for work meetings, checking in with doctors and teachers, and keeping up with family and friends. 

If you’re using a particular service, either out of habit or because it was recommended by your office IT pros, it’s worth knowing about other free and low-cost options. They may have capabilities that you’ll find useful. 

The leading services are described below.

Choosing the right videoconference service depends a lot on the kind of meetings you host. For a small gathering, the video feature in a consumer chat application like Apple’s FaceTime might be fine.

But if you host larger meetings that require features such as the ability to present documents, you might try the free version of one of the major business-oriented platforms, like Zoom or Google Meet.

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These services all involve some privacy trade-offs. Earlier in 2020, researchers in Consumer Reports’ Digital Lab analyzed Zoom and Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco Webex and found that videoconferencing companies can collect a lot of consumer information.

Additionally, meeting hosts and other participants can record meetings and share them—with co-workers, your boss, or even the whole internet. Several companies clarified their privacy policies in response to our findings, but for more protection, there are some simple steps you can take to preserve your privacy. 

  • Assume that you’re on camera throughout a meeting and that the meeting might be recorded. Consider turning off your camera and mic when you’re not presenting.
  • Use virtual or blurred backgrounds if you want to avoid sharing information that can be gleaned from your bookshelves, artwork, or a messy kitchen.
  • Remind other participants not to share meeting IDs and passwords to prevent Zoombombing-style intrusions. Let everyone know if you plan to record a meeting.
  • Employ privacy best practices like using a unique password for your videoconferencing platform (a password manager can help). Using a fresh, dedicated email address when you sign up—instead of your main email address—can reduce spam and improve your security.

Next, think a bit about presentation. No matter which platform you choose, a little attention to lighting and other video basics can help you and your home office look great onscreen. 

  • Place your webcam at eye level. The lens of a webcam can distort your face like a fun-house mirror if it’s placed below your chin. To fix this, place your laptop on a box or a pile of books.
  • Select a bright space for your meeting, ideally with natural light from a window. Try turning off overhead lights if you can and add a lamp a few feet in front of you to light your face. A bare wall can make for a disorienting background, so if you don’t want to use a virtual background, add a few objects in the frame.
  • Avoid clothing with small patterns, which can be distracting onscreen. Additionally, try to avoid pure black and white: The camera might not pick up any depth, and white clothes can disappear into a white background. 
  • Use good headphones with a built-in mic instead of relying on the tinny speakers and weak mics in many laptops. The audio can be even more important than the video.
Now, here are 10 widely used teleconferencing options, with an explanation of their advantages and drawbacks, and what kind of user will probably like them best.

Apple FaceTime

Price: Free.

FaceTime is the free videochat service built into all Apple devices, from iPhones to desktop computers. While it’s used mostly on mobile devices for a quick chat with a friend or two, the platform does allow a maximum of 32 participants. It’s a proprietary platform, however, so everyone needs to be on an Apple device like an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch; Android’s not allowed.

Despite its relatively casual vibe, FaceTime is also end-to-end encrypted, which is an important security feature. (Even if a message were intercepted, the hacker couldn’t see it. Neither can Apple, for that matter.) It’s quick, easy, and intuitive for casual meetings. However, FaceTime lacks more advanced functions, like scheduling and screen sharing.

Updates in iOS 14 allow for high-definition video up to 1080p, options for picture-in-picture multitasking, and sign language recognition.

Who it’s best for: An Apple fan, whose friends and colleagues are also Apple fans, looking for a no-fuss alternative that functions pretty much like a conference call.

Pro tip: Pressing the FaceTime button in the lower middle of the screen turns an audio-only call into a video call.

BlueJeans

Price: Standard tier, $10 per month, supports 50 participants, with no time limit and 5 hours of recording. Blue Jeans Pro, $14, offers 25 hours of recording and adds IT support.

BlueJeans is a business-oriented platform that, according to the company, makes videoconferencing as easy as your favorite pair of Levi’s.

One key selling point is its flexibility in working with software from other companies. You can start a BlueJeans conference from another messaging platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams.

BlueJeans also has a variety of innovative features, ranging from in-meeting polls to shareable meeting recaps. However, unlike many of its competitors, BlueJeans doesn’t offer a free tier.

The company has beefed up its security with a Restricted Meetings feature that prevents unauthorized access and more robust screen-sharing controls.

Who it’s best for: An outside-the-box business user who doesn’t mind paying for a platform that’s surprisingly flexible and, on a good day, might even boost a team’s creativity. 

Pro tip: The Raise Hand feature allows an attendee to easily step up into a presenter role.

Cisco Webex

Price: Cisco’s free tier accommodates 100 participants with a 50-minute limit. The Plus plan, which costs $17 per month, extends the meeting time limit to 24 hours, and comes with 5 gigabytes of cloud storage, transcriptions, and 24/7 support.

The most corporate-feeling of the major teleconferencing platforms, Cisco Webex built its reputation by delivering reliable videoconferencing to government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. But during the coronavirus pandemic, Cisco has also gained traction with small businesses and individuals.

The company recently beefed up its free tier, removing the time limit on calls, which had been set at 40 minutes. Even the free version provides advanced, enterprise-level features such as screen and file sharing and whiteboards. Cisco has also introduced 1080p HD video and a variety of smaller features including emoji-like animated in-meeting reactions.

Who it’s best for: Anyone who has used the platform while working for a large company and wants to bring that power to their home office.

Pro tip: The optional Call Me feature allows a conference to call a participant, rather than the other way around.

Facebook Messenger Rooms

Price: Free.

Messenger Rooms is an offshoot of Facebook’s Messenger chat app. The feature set is simple and includes basic security features that allow you to lock a call and remove or block participants.

The meeting size limit of 50 participants is generous, and you don’t need a Facebook account to join a call. Facebook has added Instagram and WhatsApp integration as well as a Watch Together feature that allows you to share videos with family and friends. 

Who it’s best for: A Facebook fan who’s seeking a social experience and is more interested in swapping stories than sharing documents.

Pro tip: You can use all the same augmented reality feature that enlivens plain Messenger—bunny ears, anyone? 

Free Conference

Price: The free tier allows five participants with calls up to 12 hours in duration, and supports screen sharing and whiteboarding. The $25-per-month Plus plan supports 50 meeting participants and adds screen sharing, toll-free numbers, and audio/video recording.

Free Conference offers advanced features to small-business and individual users without having to download software, which many business-oriented platforms require.

For instance, you get in-meeting chat and robust moderator controls. But the platform, which launched in 2000, is facing new competition these days from free and low-priced tiers on platforms including Cisco, Google, Microsoft, and Zoom. Despite the company’s name, the paid plans are much more robust than the free tier, with room for up to 100 participants.

Who it’s best for: A no-nonsense small-business customer looking to get started in a hurry—you can get up and running in 30 seconds—while still having the tools needed to oversee a complex meeting.

Pro tip: The host can mute or block users and designate who can share content with the group.

Google Duo

Price: Free.

Google Duo is the company’s answer to Apple’s FaceTime. The key difference is that it works with both Android and iOS devices.

Heavy on convenience but light on business features (although Google recently added a simple screen sharing feature) Duo is best suited to intimate, casual calls.

Google has also increased the maximum number of guests on a call from eight to 12. Like FaceTime, Duo features end-to-end encryption, an important security precaution.

Who it’s best for: Anyone in search of a casual videochat app for friends who span the Android and Apple ecosystems.

Pro tip: Duo features a low-light mode as a default, which generally brightens up a dark room. But if you’re finding it hard to get a decent exposure, try turning it off on the Call Settings tab in the settings menu of your phone.

Google Meet

Price: Free. Google’s Business tier, $12 per month per user, adds access to G-Suite tools and unlimited storage.

A feature-laden replacement for the departing Google Hangouts, Meet is designed for easy integration with Google’s popular G Suite apps, including Gmail, Docs, and Drive.

Google recently made Meet free for anyone with a Google account. It also suspended the service’s 60-minute time limit on meetings until March 31, 2021, and added features including blurred or virtual backgrounds and breakout rooms for smaller sub groups within a group.

Who it’s best for: A professional or small business user who’s already using other Google applications and needs a robust business-oriented videoconferencing platform.

Pro tip: On the settings tab, you can adjust the resolution for both sending and receiving video, depending on the speed of your internet connection.

Microsoft Teams

Price: Teams’ free tier now supports 300 participants, no time limit on calls, along with chat, screen sharing, and 2 gigabytes of storage. The $12.50-per-month paid tier offers 1 terabyte of storage and access to Office apps.

Teams will replace the many iterations of the venerable Microsoft-owned Skype, which is slated for retirement in summer 2021. In addition to its tight integration with Microsoft Office products such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, Teams provides dedicated conversation channels and real-time document collaboration.

The free version now lets you schedule meetings ahead of time but still doesn’t let you record them. (Microsoft says it will add a recording feature soon.) 

Who it’s best for: A power user who’s already happily using Windows apps—or who holds big meetings. Teams can handle groups of up to 300 participants, many more than lots of its competitors.

Pro tip: Scheduling Quiet Hours, or even Quiet Days, allows you to keep notifications at bay when you need to disconnect.

RingCentral Office

Price: The Essentials tier costs $20 per month for up to 20 participants. The Premium tier supports up to 200 participants and adds call recording and 24/7 support.

As you might guess from its name, RingCentral built its brand on audio conference calling, and that remains a strong suit. (It has no relation to the Ring doorbell company owned by Amazon.)

There’s no free tier, but you can get a free trial. The platform is designed for small and midsized businesses rather than individuals, and it offers integration with G-Suite, Microsoft 365, and Slack, so users can schedule and begin calls directly from those platforms.

Who it’s best for: A savvy small-business user who needs a robust option for audio conference calls as well as videoconferencing.

Pro tip: Host Only mode allows you to manage screen sharing options during a meeting.

Zoom

Price: A free tier allows meetings for up to 100 participants. The $15-per-month Pro plan adds administrative controls and 1 gigabyte of cloud recording.

Only a few months ago, Zoom was primarily a business platform, but since the coronavirus pandemic, the platform has gained mass popularity, with its daily traffic now exceeding 200 million.

With that rapid growth came some newly exposed privacy and security problems; in the spring, the company responded by suspending the rollout of new features for 90 days to focus on privacy and security.

Many users like Zoom’s clean interface and its array of group collaboration features such as whiteboarding, screen sharing, and breakout rooms. There’s a 40-minute limit on meetings in the free tier. That might turn into an advantage if your coworkers or relatives are long-winded.

The company has made privacy and security changes to prevent Zoombombing, in which bad actors gain access to a meeting and disrupt it. Zoom has also added end-to-end encryption, an important security feature, for all users.

Who it’s for: Increasingly, everyone. Zoom has become the videoconferencing system of choice for many get-togethers.

Pro tip: Zoom’s virtual background feature allows you to use a photo as background, preventing clients and co-workers from seeing your home office.