Zoom’s meteoric rise during the pandemic has led to worldwide brand recognition for the service, so much so that it has essentially become to video conferencing what Kleenex is to facial tissue.
But Zoom — along with Microsoft Teams, Google Teams, Cisco Webex, and any number of other business-friendly video conferencing tools — has its drawbacks when it comes to price, security, and flexibility (especially around meeting time and attendee number limits).
The good news is that there are plenty of other video conferencing options for small businesses and freelancers — or for bigger companies that want a broad variety of features or customizability. And even if you’re committed to Zoom whether because you like it or because someone else sent the meeting invite your way, there are simple upgrades in hardware as well as software enhancements you may want to consider.
Here, five ways to either improve your Zoom experience or a whole new app to swap it for.
Of all the open-source alternatives to Zoom, the free-to-use Jitsi Meet is the most buttoned-up and office-friendly in terms of functionality and interface. That doesn’t mean it offers loads of distinct power-user and customization options. But because it’s open-source, it’s flexible. For example, you can set up your own server so that all your chats stay secure and localized.
Unlike some video conferencing programs that let you set up permanent links and chat room addresses, all Jitsi Meet calls are ephemeral; they disappear and all content is deleted as soon as the meeting is over. You can also set up end-to-end encryption, for added security.
While Jitsi Meet has the bulk of features you’ll find on Zoom — such as the ability to share files, password-protect meetings, record calls, or park guests in a waiting room — it also has a few bonuses, such as in-meeting polls and the ability to stream videos to other meeting participants.
And don’t worry if none of your colleagues use Jitsi Meet. While it has an Android and iOS app, they aren’t required. Participants can access Jitsi Meet directly from any Web browser.
The only downside? Meetings are limited to 50 people, but it’s hard to complain when the service is 100-percent free — which makes it a no-brainer for bootstrap startups and scrappy freelancers alike.
Originally created for gamers, Discord has multiple communication, organization, and sharing options that make it a great choice for businesses. You can create an invite-only server for, say, your company or team. Then, organize that server into separate chat rooms for specific workgroups or meetings and add different levels of access for individual users depending on the rooms.
The end effect is a bit like Slack, but with more simultaneous, multimedia communication. You can stream multiple videos or chat while hosting a live presentation, adjust different user mic levels remotely, and never worry about accidental audio since the mic only activates when you are speaking. (The video is also off by default.)
Hosting up to 50 people on a server at a time is free on Discord, and you can let meetings run 24/7 if you like since they essentially function as virtual chat rooms. You can upgrade to the premium Nitro plan ($9.99 per month) for high-res video screen-sharing, more chat emojis and profile avatars, and the ability to upload files as large as 100-megabyte in video chats. There are also a ton of third-party integrations, including programmable bots that can do everything from let people play music in a chat room to schedule meetings.
While some users might find the wonky interface a bit confusing at first, those who persist will discover there is a lot of potential for serendipitous work collaboration — particularly if you set up themed chat rooms for specific projects or departments.
Skype is open to anyone through any browser, as well as through its dedicated desktop or mobile apps. You can hold meetings on it for up to 50 people at a time that last as long as 24 hours.
You can create a meeting room with a shareable link in a single click. Another option is to make voice or video calls directly to other Skype users. Chat rooms offer speaker and gallery views, and have a decent text-chat feature with plenty of emoji options.
As users have been able to do since Skype’s inception in 2003, setting up a VoIP-based phone number that can make or receive regular phone calls is easy and costs $39 per year (or $6.50 per month). With Skype, you can manage your phone calls and voice-, text-, and video-based chats in the same place.
One of the biggest bonuses to Skype is that its installed user base is massive. Anyone over the age of 25 likely has a Skype ID since it was the only global, mainstream video conferencing game in town for many years. Skype is also integrated into Amazon Alexa video devices such as the new Alexa Duo 15, which makes full use of those devices’ optimized speaker and smart camera features.
A few caveats: Skype isn’t optimized for business use — you’ll need to upgrade to Microsoft Teams for that — and there isn’t much in the way of business-ready scheduling or call management features. And while Skype Meet Now meetings are end-to-end encrypted, there is no way to create passwords, which, when coupled with the lack of a Zoom-like waiting room, offers no extra protection against Zoom-bombing. Still, the barrier to entry is low, making it ideal for on-the-fly meetings anywhere in the world.
Portal — Facebook’s line of tabletop video conferencing smart displays — is hardware, but it so significantly transforms the video meeting experience of existing video chat apps such as Blue Jeans, Messenger, WhatsApp, Workplace, and Zoom, that it’s well-worth considering.
In fact, it’s a particularly good option if there are several people in the same room talking on the same account. Portal’s best-in-class smart camera focuses and zooms in and out on whoever is talking, be it a specific colleague or a group. Excellent speakers and several mics, along with stellar AI, provide deep and immersive sound, while the built-in mic array helps focus on the current speaker and blocks out distracting ambient noise. Portal comes in two different desktop or tabletop sizes, as well as in an accessory format that can attach to just about any TV.
The only downside is Portal’s text-based chat. It’s relatively seamless on a laptop or mobile phone, but not as much when using an onscreen touch keyboard. That said, Portal is a great option not only for small businesses that don’t have the budget for pricier teleconferencing options, but also for individual freelancers who split their time between the office and home. One more plus: the device’s AR and other onscreen real-time filters are a big draw for personal conversations with friends and family.
Use alternatives for Zoom all you want, but the majority of video conferencing meetings still seem to take place on Zoom. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t spruce up the experience. Zoom’s launch of the Zoom App Marketplace last year was a welcome addition for the videochat weary.
The Zoom marketplace offers more than 1,000 apps that cover everything from modified interfaces and programmable macros to calendar and educational plug-ins. While the bulk of the apps are integrations of work apps and tools you might already know and use — Asana, DocuSign, Gmail, Prezi, and so on — there are also original add-ons. Circles, for example, transforms the gallery view of Zoom meetings into fully resizable and draggable meeting participant windows that can be placed anywhere on your desktop. Others, such as Krisp, work in the background to reduce unwanted background noise.