Choose the best online call and conference service to keep in touch with the people in your life.
We’ve looked at all the major online voice and video calling/conferencing options and ranked according to ease of use, access to all-comers and reliability across slow Internet connections.
Leaving aside privacy considerations, our preference for online calls (one-to-one or group) are, in order:
- Google Hangouts
We prefer ‘point to point’ software which connects your devices with others directly with little or no audio/video routed via a central server. Those servers can get overloaded so it’s better to avoid that, if possible.
Group calling is great but there’s usually a limit on the number of connections. There’s also a practical limit of how many people the Internet connection can handle.
A lot of the demonstrations and promises for calling services assume a high speed and reliable connection. Even if you have a good service, the other people in your house or area can drop the available speed.
Don’t be the one holding up a meeting because you can’t get the computer working. Even if you don’t need it, take a little time to install, setup and test the major online call/conference services. Then you’ll be ready, even at short notice to join a call.
These days, it’s common for a call to start on one service, there’s trouble and a quick switch to another method. Another reason to be ready for the unexpected calling option.
Facetime seems the most stable and reliable calling service however it’s limited to Apple devices only – iPhone, iPad, iTouch and Mac computers.
In our experience, Facetime works well with low bandwidth/slow Internet. It’s more likely to pause and reconnect rather than drop the call.
The ‘Apple’ only limit is a drag but the high quality service put Facetime at the top of our ranking.
If you have an iPhone, iPad or Mac computer, start and prepare Facetime.
Group Calling: Yes, up to 32 people.
Encryption: good. Apple built end to end encryption into Facetime from the beginning.
Skype works on almost any device, Windows, Mac, Apple, Android, aardvark to zebra. Even some TV’s. Most people have Skype or can install it.
Group Calling: Yes, up to 50 people.
Encryption: none. All calls can be ‘heard’ by Microsoft, especially if you use the subtitles/translation option.
WhatsApp has voice and video calling from any Apple or Android smartphone. It’s very popular and well known.
We’ve never been happy with the call quality. Even with a good Internet connection (Wifi not mobile) WhatsApp calls break up and that’s just audio! You might have better luck.
We use WhatsApp for encrypted messaging and only call when necessary.
Group Calling: Yes, up to 4 people.
Signal has excellent encryption and privacy. It’s the gold standard for private messaging.
It also has voice and video calling. Like all Signal features it’s VERY private. Sadly, no group calling.
Like WhatsApp, the service is quite variable but if you’re after privacy, Signal is the way to go.
Group Calling: No, single ‘one to one’ calls only.
Encryption: Good. Signal makes the encryption software that most other messaging services use, including its rival, WhatsApp.
Zoom has quickly gone from being a corporate niche product to something widely known across the globe.
Popularity is Zoom’s current problem. Quite understandably, the company is struggling to meet the astonishing rise in demand.
Unlike our preferred services (Facetime, Skype, WhatsApp or Signal), Zoom relies more on their central servers to manage and route the audio/video for each call. That especially applies to group calls.
Zoom beats Microsoft Teams in one important way. Zoom lets you join and make simple one-to-one or group calls. There’s no trouble and confusion of joining any semi-permanent grouping with all the extras like document sharing, wikis and all the ‘bells and whistles’ of Teams.
Group Calling: Yes, naturally
Encryption: Poor. There are encryption options that can be selected for Zoom calls/meetings but they are off by default. Zoom has a history of privacy concerns.
Microsoft Teams is a collaboration service primarily for businesses who want to share a range of online services, not just voice and video calls. Microsoft is pushing it hard at the moment but it’s not appropriate for occasional or social calls between individuals. There’s a lot in Teams that’s not needed and might confuse many people.
Microsoft Skype is better and easier to setup for most people wanting to communicate with friends, family and co-workers.
Group Calling: Yes, naturally
Encryption: unclear. How a call is routed depends on the location of each caller. Sometimes the audio/video is ‘end to end’ (e.g when both are on the same local network) but when callers are further apart the call maybe routed through Microsoft’s servers. Microsoft’s documentation is full of acronyms but not explicit statements so the safer conclusion is that Teams calls are not highly private nor fully encrypted.
Hangouts is a paid Google service as part of their G Suite package for organizations. Only paid customers can start meetings however the host can invite anyone into a meeting via a meeting code.
It’s intended for group online conferences but could be used by a G Suite account holder to call anyone who has Hangouts installed.
Group Calling: Yes. Up to 150 people on a voice call. Video conferences can have up to 25 paid (G Suite) users but only up to 10 free (Gmail. G Suite Basic) users.
Encryption: incomplete. The connection between each person/device and Google is encrypted but the call is saved/router ‘in the clear’ on their servers.