Best free video conferencing software: Zoom vs Hangouts vs Skype

It's time to ditch basic phone video calls and start using a proper video conferencing system

There’s nothing worse than trying to conduct a meeting over patchy video conferencing software, with participants dropping in and out, or valuable time being eaten up by technical issues. Video conferencing is also a crucial tool for remote working, allowing teams and clients to remain connected to the business without face-to-face meetings.

You don’t have to shell out a fortune for business-quality tools though; there are numerous products that allow you to make multi-person video calls free of charge. For any teams still trying to use FaceTime and WhatsApp to keep in touch, here are the best free video conferencing options out there.

Google Hangouts

The collaboration arm of Google’s app portfolio, hangouts is a relatively bare-bones tool compared with some rivals, offering little more than voice, video and text chats. Hangouts is fairly basic, leaving the file-sharing and collaboration elements to other Google apps like Drive and Docs.

Note that while paid G Suite subscriptions have access to a more fully-featured equivalent of Hangouts, with better central admin controls and a few additional features, the free service that comes included with personal Google accounts is even more stripped-back. 

Screen-sharing and a built-in text chat window is about all you get in terms of additional features and the interface, while functional and user-friendly, doesn’t feature collaboration aids such as interactive annotation or hand-raising.

With a maximum limit of 10 participants and 720p video resolution, the limits on the free tier are reasonable, if not terribly impressive. You can adjust the settings to save on bandwidth costs though, which is a useful feature for those with shaky connections.

Maximum group call participants

10

Maximum video quality

720p

Additional features

Screen-sharing

Lifesize

Although Lifesize is perhaps better-known for its stellar video conferencing hardware, it also has its own cloud-based video conferencing app to support it. Lifesize is very much aimed at business users, so the interface is geared towards pre-booked meetings and intra-organisational calls rather than ad-hoc get-togethers.

The platform is designed around Lifesize’s meeting room conferencing systems, but it also works for fully remote video calls. You can start a meeting by calling someone directly from your contacts list, by scheduling a meeting with the calendar integration, or by starting a one-off meeting and sending a join link around.

The free version is quite capable, with 25 maximum participants, and no limits on meeting frequency or duration. The maximum video resolution of 1080p is also one of the higher offerings, although the Plus and Enterprise plans have access to 4K streaming. There’s also a centralised management console and a few key integrations, making it a decent solution for larger SMBs - provided you’re willing to wrestle with a somewhat involved interface.

Maximum group call participants

25

Maximum video quality

1080p

Additional features

Screen-sharing, file-sharing, central management

 Skype

Skype has the rare honour of having become a verb in its own right, joining the ranks of Google and Uber. One of the oldest video chat platforms still in operation, Skype’s user interface has come on leaps and bounds in recent years and is now much cleaner and more user-friendly.

Though technically a consumer-oriented application (with enterprise duties now having been taken over by Microsoft Teams), Skype nonetheless acquits itself admirably as a business video conferencing tool for small teams. Meetings are easy to set up, and participants no longer need to download the application to join them. On top of that, it benefits from neat features like the ability to blur the background to minimise distractions.

Business-specific features like centralised administration are sadly not an option for free Skype users, but you do get support for up to 50 participants on one video call, screen sharing, call recording, live transcription, file sharing, and 1080p video. For user-friendliness and breadth of features, this veteran software is hard to beat.

Maximum group call participants

50

Maximum video quality

1080p

Additional features

Recording, screen-sharing, file-sharing, background blur

Zoom

Zoom has made a name for itself among trendy startup-type circles as the go-to video conferencing platform, and not without reason. The service boasts a number of impressive business-level features, including recording and transcription of meetings, integrated file-sharing and a host of integrations with widely-used software.

It’s also got a highly robust administration and management console behind it, with support for granular permissions, usage tracking and easy onboarding through single sign-on and Active Directory integration. It’s got features to support webinars and town halls if you want to expand your video conferencing beyond team meetings and one-to-ones. 

Zoom’s free Basic tier offers a surprisingly robust set of features, including up to 720p resolution, telephone dial-in, screen sharing, and a wide suite of productivity tools. Up to 100 participants can join a group call (and don’t require an account to do so), and you can host one-on-one meetings with no limits. The biggest constraint with the free tier is that group meetings can only be 40 minutes long - but it’s easy enough to start a new one when the timer runs out.

Maximum group call participants

100

Maximum video quality

720p

Additional features

Recording, screen-sharing, file-sharing, central management

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