Best apps for a virtual get-together for work or fun

More than ever, the internet is a lifeline right now, both for businesses and individuals. Where social interaction is not possible, computers and phones can take its place, and the results can be surprisingly satisfying.

Zoom's virtual meetings work for business and social get-togethers

Apps like Skype, Google Hangouts and Apple’s Facetime have got the art of one-to-one dialogue in voice and vision down to a fine art. But they represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is now possible.

The gold standard is currently an American service called Zoom, which is now also available over here. It was designed for business meetings but has proved unexpectedly popular with private users for whom virtual communication has become the only option.

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Zoom’s particular advantage, apart from being free for personal use, is that it can support meetings of up to 100 people at a time and display their images in a multiple split screen configuration, rather like a miniature video wall. Everyone can see each other at once and talk over each other at once, which makes it as good for social get-togethers as it is for tedious, work-oriented ones.

Zoom runs in an app on Apple and Android phones, or in a regular PC browser. You simply sign up for an account as a “host” and then send invitations to as many collaborators as you want – none of whom need their own accounts. You can schedule meetings to begin later, and invite people to collaborate from an ordinary phone line, though there’s no toll-free number. Another handy feature is the ability to use a “virtual background” to disguise the untidy room you inhabit in reality.

Like most video conferencing apps, it works over mobile networks as well as wi-fi, so you can join a meeting from almost anywhere. You may need to keep an eye on your monthly data allowance, though.

Your free account gives you unlimited one-to-one meetings and places no limit on the number of larger events you can host, though it does place a time limit of 40 minutes on each of these. If you need longer, paid accounts start at £12 a month, but they’re really for business organisers.

Video on Zoom is high definition but that’s something of a misnomer if you are reliant on a low resolution webcam on your laptop. And irrespective of the technical specification, the picture will look awful if it’s not properly lit – which means having a source of light in front of you. For social gatherings this may not matter; it depends on how much trouble you’d take with your appearance if you met someone in person.

Discord is another alternative to Skype, but with less of a business focus. Designed originally as a platform for people to text each other while playing video games, it now encompasses video and voice communication and allows users to create different chat rooms which it calls “servers.” Some are open to anyone; others for invitees only. But it takes some getting used to; you can’t dive in as quickly as you can with Zoom.

For Apple users – but no-one else – Facetime remains the video conferencing app of choice. It supports group chats of up to 32 people and because it’s built into every iPhone and iPad, there is no extra cost. It also works on Macintosh computers but not Windows PCs or, of course, Android phones.

For those users, there is still Skype. The original but no longer the best conferencing platform, it competes with the similar Google Hangouts, which works on Apple and Android phones and on computers, provided they use Google’s Chrome browser. But if it’s conversation you crave, with the minimum of configuration, try Zoom first.