With so many video chat apps, which one do you choose?

The PACIFIC staff on a Zoom call, trying out different backgrounds.
(Jennifer Ianni)

Here’s a breakdown of six virtual applications popular in quarantine


With social-distancing in full swing, we now heavily rely on virtual dates, dinners and happy hours to keep us social and sane. Plus, as many of us transition to working from home, office meetings are moving online.

But with so many video chat apps out there, how do you decide which one to use?

We tested out six options, all of which can be used on a mobile device or computer, and each with its own personality. So read on to decide where your next virtual (professional or personal) meet-up should be.

1. Zoom

Best for: work meetings, happy hour with lots of friends

Though Zoom’s popularity is soaring right now, the interface may take users a little time to navigate since it’s not created by familiar tech companies like Apple or Google. But the layout is pretty intuitive, so just spend a few minutes clicking around and you’ll quickly become a pro.

With three paid tiers for businesses, Zoom is popular for work conference calls, but it also offers a free option for regular users. Up to 100 people can join a single meeting with a free plan, and 500 with the most expensive one.

Warning: Zoom automatically starts in speaker view, where the face of person talking takes up the full screen. It’s a bit jarring, but with a quick click in the upper right corner, switch to gallery view and all participants show up in equal size on screen.

As a frivolous bonus, swap your white walls with personalized backdrops, or download filters to get a laugh from the crowd. (If you haven’t seen it already, please enjoy the Zoom potato filter story.)

The one downside is that there is a 40 minute time limit on free accounts, so if want to chat longer, set up a new call with a different host. -SB

2. Skype

Best for: international calls, chats with non-iOS users

Skype is the OG of video chat applications, having first been introduced to the public in the early 2000s and hitting its stride by 2011, when it was purchased by Microsoft. Before Zoom, everyone Skyped. And today, people still Skype. The company has reported a 70% increases in users since the coronavirus quarantine took effect.

Skype feels a bit more dated than its counterparts nowadays, but there are still some cool features: you can blur your background to hide your messy room, and Skype Translator lets you chat with friends in different countries with a speech-to-speech translation function.

Skype’s basic plan is free to use, but for more bells and whistles (international calls; Skype-to-landline calls), users need to pony up the Skype Credits, the pay-as-you-go option. -JI

3. Google Hangouts

Best for: audio-only meetings, chats with less tech-savvy users

Google Hangouts is very similar to Zoom when it comes to interface and features.

But instead of limiting time, Google limits the calls to 25 people (150 if it’s audio-only) so it’s better for personal calls instead of business meetings. (Google Meet is an alternative that allows users to schedule meetings via Google Calendar.)

Rather than download a new application or program, Google Hangouts is set up with your personal Google account. Log-in to your Gmail, click the grid icon in the top right corner, and look for Hangouts. Hit “video call” and then invite people via email. Not only is this convenient, it may put users slightly more at ease with all the privacy concerns surrounding other video chat apps (have you heard of Zoombombing?). -SB

4. FaceTime

Best for: large or small groups of iOS users

FaceTime is Apple’s answer to video calls, and it’s available on all iOS devices (Mac computers, iPhones, iPads, etc.). FaceTime is popular because it’s accessible: it’s already on your iPhone.

FaceTime comes equipped with the standard video chat features, as well as more playful additions, like filters, special effects, Animojis and Memojis (with certain operating systems). You can literally use your Animoji avatar to stand in for you during a FaceTime call. What a time to be alive, amiright?

The drawback to FaceTime are that it’s only available with fellow Apple users. It’s not compatible with Android or Windows. -JI

5. Instagram Video Chat

Best for: intimate group chats; happy hours

To conduct a video chat via Instagram, simply head to your direct messages. Choose a person and, in the upper right hand corner of the screen, click the video camera icon.

Once the chat begins, users can choose from a few different options: an icon in the upper left hand corner of the screen allows users to shrink the chat and continue browsing Instagram. To add effects and filters, click the upper right hand smiley face icon.

Instagram’s video chat function allows up to six users, so it won’t work for large conference calls. Of course, in order to use the function, all participants must be Instagram users.

Pro tip: Be sure to enable video chat notifications in the app. Otherwise, you won’t be alerted to incoming video chats. -JI

6. House Party

Best for: game night, spontaneous socializing

House Party is meant for smaller groups (up to 8 people) and easiest to use with your phone. Similar to a social media platform, the app shows when people on your friends list are online with a little green dot -- but it goes a step further and also notifies you when any friends are “in the house” with a push notification.

House Party also has four in-app games: trivia, Heads Up, Draw This, and Chips and Guac (like an off-brand version of Apples to Apples). As someone who has tried numerous inventive ways to play virtual board and computer games with friends, House Party’s game integration makes playing super simple.

But if you prefer to lay low, this app is not your friend. Unless you change your settings, anytime you log on everyone will be notified you’ve arrived. So make sure to “ghost” people you don’t want to interact with. (Yes, House Party actually makes you click a ghost emoji to activate the feature.)

And be sure to secure the room too -- click the lock icon in the bottom center -- otherwise, anyone in the call can invite people you may or may not know over to your virtual house party. -SB

Bonus: Live From San Diego!

Show love for America’s Finest City by transforming your video call backgrounds to some of San Diego’s sweetest sights. The San Diego Padres have sprawling Petco Park images, while SDSU brings the school spirit. Even the new Top Gun movie gets into the act with Maverick backgrounds. If you’re looking for general San Diego setting, the city’s Tourism Board has you covered with shots of Balboa Park, Torrey Pines and Windansea, among others. To use, simply download the photos, save them and upload them to your video call background, if that option is available. -JI