An enormous number of people are staying away from each other as the world tries to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. In this environment, Zoom Meetings (free, with paid plans starting at $14.99 per month per host) has taken hold and become a top choice among video conferencing apps both for business and personal use. For people working from home, Zoom is now practically synonymous with having a meeting. The app works for other kinds of get-togethers, too, from virtual funerals to happy hours. The more people use Zoom, however, the more it’s come under scrutiny.
During the first half of 2020, security experts, educators, and average users criticized Zoom on several fronts, which we’ll elaborate on momentarily. We at PCMag believe users should not only be aware of the criticisms, but also informed of the facts before deciding to whether or not to use Zoom. That said, in terms of features, stability, and reliability, Zoom remains one of the best video calling apps you’ll find. There are plenty of alternatives should Zoom not meet your standards. We’ve listed some of them below with links to in-depth reviews where available.
If you use Zoom, we recommend taking a moment to get acquainted with the tool’s key features. While Zoom is an Editors’ Choice, we’ve bumped the score down by a half point in light of recent events. For its stability and reliability, however, Zoom remains a go-to app, particularly for business meetings and personal get-togethers. For government and healthcare use, be sure to look closely at Zoom’s offerings as those sectors tend to have more stringent security and privacy requirements.
Zoom’s 2020 Controversies
With increased use comes increased scrutiny, as well as increased attempts at exploitation. For Zoom, several flaws and gaffes have come to light. The company has been quick to issue clarifications and fixes for most of the problems. In some cases, however, it has failed to offer solutions that many people find acceptable.
First, the company previously said that Zoom used end-to-end encryption (E2EE). It had to amend that claim, however, to say end-to-end encryption was used only for calls between people using Zoom apps or Zoom Room, provided no one is recording the call (which is an option in the app). But end-to-end encryption is not available for Zoom via other devices, such as dialing into the audio of a Zoom call using a telephone.
The matter of encryption got more complicated in June, 2020. The company announced it would not provide E2EE to free account holders; then after some backlash, the company reverted its decision saying it would encrypt all calls but only if free account holders verify their accounts with a phone number. Moreover, this phone verification system would not go into effect immediately. The controversy has to do with the implication that Zoom would only protect users’ conversations from law enforcement if they were paying customers. IT then changed its mind, and even so users still didn’t feel it was acting in their best interest by delaying the rollout of E2EE for all and with an additional barrier for non-paying customers.
A second controversy related to encryption keys. Zoom owns many servers, some of which are located in China. In 2020, the China-based servers had been generating encryption keys that were given to users in other countries, which is considered a security risk. The company addressed the issue and gave a nuanced account of what happened and how the company fixed the problem. Additionally, users can now control through which countries their video conferences are routed.
A third problem was Zoom-bombing, which refers to people hijacking in-progress meetings with inappropriate content. It seems to have occurred mostly when meeting hosts did not know that they had to opt into using certain features to fully protect their calls. Here, Zoom addressed the problem by changing its default settings and making other security features more prominent so people would know to use them.
Lastly, in California and New York, Zoom may face legal challenges after sharing data about user activity with Facebook without the user’s consent. As with the other issues mentioned so far, the company was quick to acknowledge the problem and make appropriate changes.
Background on Zoom
Zoom Meetings’ story began in 2011 when the market for video conferencing software was crowded. (It still is.) There was no shortage of choices if you were looking to make video calls. The problem was none of the services held up well. Not a one. Glitchy video, stalling audio, and calls that wouldn’t connect left people frustrated. Into this mucked-up space waltzed Zoom Video Communications, a new company focused on making video calls smoother and more reliable.
Flash forward to the era just before COVID-19. San Jose, California-based Zoom had grown into a tech industry darling with a successful initial public offering (IPO) announced in April 2019. Its success largely stemmed from fulfilling its promise to improve video calls by making them more stable. Even before COVID-19, Zoom was doing extremely well as a company and had a strong reputation.
The company’s core product, called Zoom Meetings (typically shortened to just Zoom), impresses for other reasons, too. It has a fantastic feature set that includes, for example, high definition (HD) video and audio as well as the ability to get typed transcripts of calls that you record as videos—that last one is reserved for paying members only. The app considers the needs of people who join calls only occasionally as well as remote teams who connect daily.
Anyone can use Zoom for free. For small businesses and individuals who want more features, paid plans are reasonably priced starting at $14.99 per month. Enterprise-grade accounts, which cost more, include all the administrator controls you’d expect plus a full voice-over-IP service called Zoom Phone. In the breadth of what it offers, Zoom Meetings is similar to Editors’ Choices Cisco Webex Meetings and ClickMeeting, even if the features aren’t identical. Still, Zoom’s greatest hook remains its stability. Stability is tough to quantify and compare in video conferencing systems, but it’s the foundation of Zoom, and it shows.
Getting Started With Zoom Meetings
If you’re invited to a Zoom meeting, you don’t need to create an account. However, you will see a prompt to download the Zoom Meetings application. Downloading the app is optional as you can connect via a web app if you prefer, but the installed app does give you the optimized experience. Zoom Meetings has apps for Apple iOS, and Google Android on the mobile side as well as Apple macOS, Linux, and Microsoft Windows for desktops and laptops.
If you want to host a session in Zoom Meetings and invite others to join, then you need to create an account. You can authenticate with Facebook or Google, or sign up using an email address and password. When you create an account, you get a Personal Meeting ID (PMI), which you can use at any time to start a meeting. It’s handy because you can use the same meeting link over and over again, which is convenient for small groups that meet regularly. In other words, you never have to generate a fresh link to meet. You always have the option, however, to create a unique meeting ID and link, which may be preferable for security reasons.
Audio and Free Accounts
To access a call’s audio, you and your meeting participants can choose to connect using your computer or mobile device or by dialing in by phone using a standard rate or toll-free number where supported. There’s no toll-free number for the US or the UK, although there are for dozens of other countries.
Depending on your settings, participants may be able to join the audio portion of the call via Microsoft Skype for Business. It’s also possible to set up a third-party audio system of your choosing and include instructions for dialing into the meeting in the invitation.
Zoom Meetings’ free account is generous. You can host up to 100 people on a call and you can see as many as 49 people at a time in the Gallery view mode. All calls are free, but group calls get cut off after 40 minutes. One-on-one calls can be as long as you need.
There’s no limit on how many meetings you can host as a free user, and you get all the most important features and tools. A few features you don’t get are reports, user management controls, and administrator controls. The free account also does not include any cloud space to store recorded calls, although you can still record the video of your calls and store the data locally.
The locally installed app and the web account contain slightly different settings, and it’s in your best interest to explore both. We highly encourage new users to spend time going through the settings before using Zoom, not only for privacy and security reasons, but also to get the most out of what Zoom has to offer. For example, there are options to put attendees on hold, give remote control of your keyboard and mouse to another person while you give a presentation, touch up your appearance, and automatically adjust your picture in low light.
Setting Up a Zoom Meeting
To set up or start a meeting using Zoom, you’ll find several options. As mentioned earlier, you can snag your Personal Meeting ID or unique link and send it to participants. They either click the link, or launch Zoom and enter the PMI, and you’re off to the races.
Alternatively, you can schedule a meeting in advance from the Zoom app, which you can connect to Google Calendar, iCal, or Microsoft Outlook. Choose a date, start time, end time, and time zone, then select a few other preferences, such as whether you’d like your video stream to activate automatically when you begin the call. If you give your participants the option to join by phone, you can choose which country dial-in numbers to display. A link to all the dial-in options appears on the invitation, too. Your scheduled meetings and all the details for how to connect automatically show up on your connected calendar.
You can also password-protect your meetings. Since Zoom enhanced its security features, the unique meeting ID and passcode options are more prominent and selected by default. However, the link to the meeting that is automatically generated in the invitation makes it unnecessary for anyone you’ve invited directly to enter it. If you can also set a passcode for your PMI then it will remain the same until you change it. For any passcode, you can change it to be anything you want, as long as it’s no more than 10 characters.
With a Pro account, you can also require that attendees “register,” which means they need to complete a survey form before they join to collect information about them. It’s useful when you use Zoom for webinars and you aren’t sure who might attend. You also need to enable this option if you want to run reports of who has joined meetings.
Another feature is a waiting room, which has two purposes. First, participants can log onto a meeting and see a hold screen until the host officially starts the meeting. That way, participants can’t interact with one another before the host is ready. Second, the waiting room allows the host to control who can join and when.
Notably missing is the ability to write or attach an agenda to a meeting invitation, or even add a description of the meeting. If you integrate Zoom with another collaboration app, such as a calendar or work-management app, then you can add more information there, but not in the Zoom app when you create or schedule a meeting. We felt that was a fairly inconvenient oversight when compared with other business-oriented video calling apps.
The Zoom Meetings Experience
We’ve used Zoom as both a participant and host frequently, starting around 2017, including for weekly meetings with remotely distributed teams. Joining a meeting takes little effort. Connecting takes a few seconds if you already have the app installed and only about two extra clicks if you choose the web app instead.
When you connect as a guest, you might see a waiting room notice, be asked to fill out some information before you can join, or depending on the settings, you might go directly to the meeting. Hosts, especially with paid Zoom accounts, get a lot of options. For example, the host can set up the meeting in such a way that there’s no waiting room and everyone who joins is immediately able to see one another and chat together, even before the host arrives. They can control whether people are muted upon joining, whether their cameras are active or off, and whether people can chat with one another privately, or at all, or only as a group.
As a participant, you can enable or disable your own video and microphone at any time, again, as long as the host allows you to turn on those peripherals at all. One reason to intentionally disable them is for certain types of meetings, such as large webinars. Participants can use on-screen buttons or keyboard shortcuts for muting and unmuting as well as enabling or disabling the camera. Hosts can also disable any participant’s microphone or camera at any time.
Hosts see a Security button, which was added in 2020 and will show up on their toolbar during active calls. This button gives quick access to important security features, such as locking the meeting, enabling a waiting room for additional guests who try to join after the meeting starts, and giving participants permission to share their screens, chat, and so forth. Hosts and people with permission can add new people to the call on an ad hoc basis. For example, if you’re already on a call and realize that you need to invite more people, there are tools for quickly copying your meeting ID and other information to send. There’s also an option to start drafting an email with the invitation information, too.
As a participant, you can configure your screen to see relevant information panels, a chat box, and different view modes, such as Gallery View and Speaker View. Even if the host keeps participants muted, there are buttons for raising your hand, requesting the speaker to speed up or slow down, and other ways to interact.
Fun and Functional Features
Zoom has three features that aren’t strictly necessary but make video calls more enjoyable: Virtual Backgrounds, Touch Up My Appearance, and Video Filters.
First, Virtual Backgrounds lets you change your backdrop to an image or video of your choosing. The app gives you a few to try out, and you can upload others. For corporate types, it’s an opportunity to add a company logo or use other kinds of branding. It’s also useful for privacy if you don’t want people to see any details about where you are. Sometimes, it’s just fun. Before a virtual baby shower, for example, the party organizer might send around a photo of the expecting family that people can use for their background, to give the sentiment that they’re all together even when they can’t be.
Next is Touch Up My Appearance, which is only available on Apple mobile devices as well as Microsoft Windows 10 and Apple macOS computers (not Android or web-based client). This a feature that softens skin and hair to smooth over wrinkles, dimples, pimples, and the like. In the desktop app, a slider lets you decide how soft a focus you want. The image above shows the touch-up completely off (left) and at about the halfway point (right).
Video Filters, the newest of these fun features, is similar to the face filters you see in Instagram, SnapChat, and other image-based social media apps. They look a bit like stickers that dynamically stay where you want. An example might be a sticker that looks like a pair of sunglasses and covers your eyes even as you move your face on the video. Options include virtual animal faces, flowers for your hair, hats, and holiday-themed borders.
A few other special features in Zoom focus more on utility. The ability to assign a co-host to a meeting, for example, makes it easy to share responsibilities for managing the meeting and participants.
Desktop sharing, also known as screen sharing, works well and supports multiple monitors. In the same vein as having a co-host to share responsibilities, you can start a screen sharing session and hand over controls of your keyboard and mouse to someone else on the call. It’s a nice way to have students engage with material or let someone else move your slides while you give a presentation. You can also set up a side-by-side screen share of your desktop and someone else’s, a handy way to literally compare notes. During any screen sharing session, participants and the host can annotate and mark up whatever’s on the screen. Zoom Meetings also has a collaborative whiteboard you can use to brainstorm or map out ideas.
Breakout rooms are another wonderful feature, especially for student groups and remote teams. During a meeting, you can assign participants to groups (or let them select the group they want) and send them into their own private video chat. When finished, everyone can easily reconvene in the main video call.
Zoom also lets you record meetings. Paid accounts include some cloud storage space for those recordings, making it easier to not only save the resulting videos but also share them. As mentioned above, you also always have the option to record and save the video locally.
Still, while Zoom has lots of excellent features, we’ve heard of some nice-to-have options in other apps that aren’t in Zoom Meetings. For example, ClickMeeting, another Editors’ Choice in our video conferencing software review roundup, lets you send automatic “thank you” emails to participants. You could do this same thing with Zoom Meetings, but it would require a third-party automation app, such as IFTTTor Zapier, to carry out. Zoom Meetings integrates with both those services.
Speaking of integration options, support for apps has grown considerably, which is a huge positive for Zoom customers. You can now connect to general business apps for scheduling (Accuity, Calendly, ScheduleOnce), CRM or customer relationship management (Pipedrive, HubSpot, Salesforce), collaboration and productivity (Slack, Prezi, Monday.com) as well as industry-specific apps for sectors such as healthcare, education, and fitness.
Zoom for Business
Paying customers get a few more business-focused features, such as reports. From the web app, you can generate a report of all attendees in a meeting, though you have to enable registration in advance to get any data in the report. Otherwise, it will be empty. The participant reports are somewhat inconvenient because you must download them as CSV files and then import them into some kind of spreadsheet app to view them.
Other reports appear right in the web app, including bar graphs showing the number of meetings, participants, and minutes your organization spent using Zoom during a particular time period.
The list of other features for businesses is long, but a list of those worth mentioning start with templates, which let you save settings and options for specific types of meetings. There is also localized language support for 10 languages beyond English; and good accessibility options, including the ability to add closed captioning to live videos either with your own typist or another service.
For a complete range of administrator tools and services, Zoom does offer an Enterprise plan for $19.99 per month per host with a minimum of 50 hosts. For this type of account, you can have up to 1,000 people on any call. There’s also a plan for small and medium businesses that costs $19.99 per month per host but the minimum is just 10. This plan supports up to 300 participants per call.
If your organization is large, you might consider some of Zoom’s offerings beyond Zoom Meetings (which has so far been the focal point of this review). Zoom Room, for example, is another deployment of the Zoom software that lets organizations use it with cameras, microphones, projectors, and other hardware they may already have in place in conference rooms or other locations. On the back end, administrators for Zoom Room get reports of not only who joined various calls, but the status of all the hardware being used across all the locations. Essentially, this is Zoom’s answer to the slowly growing trend for smarter conference rooms.
Another business-focused feature is the ability to conduct webinars, for when you want to broadcast a video live but you don’t want attendees to be able to interrupt the host. There are options to stream videos live to Facebook, Workplace by Facebook, and YouTube.
We mentioned early that Zoom has faced scrutiny over its loose definition of end-to-end encryption, but that it has better clarified exactly how encryption works since then. We would encourage any organization that’s considering using Zoom to read its PDF Security Guide thoroughly.
For use in the health sector, Zoom Meetings offers compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but you must sign up for a Zoom for Healthcare account, and those plans start at $200 per month per host. Similarly, government agencies interested in Zoom should look more closely at its Zoom for Government plan.
Help and support varies based on what type of plan you have. Free users can fill out an online form and await a reply. Pro plan subscribers can either submit an online form or text-chat live with a support team member. Zoom members with a Business, Education, or API plan have those same two options plus toll-free numbers for phone support in eight countries: Australia, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, and the US.
Helpful Information for New Zoom Users
With remote work and distance learning more popular than ever, Zoom has created a page of resources for getting started, including links to training webinars. If you’re new to Zoom but don’t need a full webinar, a few quick facts and tips may be helpful.
1. Free Users Have a 40-Minute Limit on Group Calls
If you use Zoom for free, one-on-one calls can last as long as you like. For calls with three or more people, you’re limited to 40 minutes.
2. Ignore Outdated References to ‘Your Boss Can Spy on You’
There used to be a feature in Zoom that allowed the host to see when an attendee navigated away from the Zoom window. It was sometimes framed as “your boss can spy on you.” It’s long gone and Zoom is in now way built as an employee monitoring tool. So if you see a reference to this in other articles about Zoom, don’t worry because it’s no longer relevant.
3. Review Settings and Options in Advance
One of the best things you can do if you use Zoom is explore the settings and options available to you. Many people simply overlook them and don’t realize all the tools they have at their disposal. These can help make calls run more smoothly, better protect the privacy of the meeting, or simply make it the best experience possible. See our list of Zoom tips for more on how to have a great experience.
Alternatives to Zoom
If you’re not interested in Zoom, we can point you to a long list of other options.
For personal use, there are plenty of free video calling apps. These options typically don’t have the features you would expect to find in a business-grade video conferencing tool. However, for chatting with friends, they get the job done. A few examples are WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook Messenger, HouseParty, FaceTime, and Google Meet.
Google Meet and Skype can both be used in business settings, too, as they have ample features to support those kinds of calls. Other frequent options for business settings are Microsoft Teams and Slack. They’re not really video conferencing services, but they’re fine for meetings that don’t require extensive tools to manage them. We recommend reading about the key differences between Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet to get a sense of how they differ.
Another option worth exploring is Jitsi Meet. It’s free, open-source, and according to the website “fully encrypted.” We think it’s a good pick for casual get-togethers if you’re opposed to other options. That said, it comes up short on features. If you want a custom waiting room for participants before the call starts, for example, or virtual backgrounds, or password-protected meetings, you’re better off with Zoom. Jitsi does come with screen sharing, call recording, live streaming, and a few other features, however.
Best of Breed and Recommended
It’s undeniably easy to start using Zoom for video calls and it’s just as easy to get hooked on it. In light of recent conditions, we recommend new users take a few minutes to explore the app and its settings before creating their first meeting. Putting in even 10 minutes to look over the app before using it can definitely be beneficial. The service has much to explore regardless of whether you use it every so often to meet with clients or regularly to host all-hands meetings with a large team.
The Bottom Line
Zoom Meetings’ claims to fame are top-notch performance, affordability, and a generous free plan, all of which help it earn our Editors’ Choice designation for video conferencing apps.