For those of us lucky enough to be home safe and healthy during the coronavirus pandemic, group video platforms are making a heroic rise from last resort to daily routine. For me, they’ve actually resulted in a busier social life than pre-coronavirus days.
As I made it through week three of the #StayHome life, I tried five of the most popular. Here’s my ranking, from worst to best.
What is it? A group video and games app that allows eight people.
Price: Free, extra for more games.
The experience: I tried this out with a couple of friends I have kept in touch with for five years across the various continents we’ve lived on. Colorful and splashy, it includes trivia, a drawing game, a billiards game and something called Mars Dash. It’s possible we’re all getting bleary-eyed and dull in our self-isolation, but my normally intelligent friends found the trivia, notably the obscure questions about the Cincinnati Reds, to be exceptionally difficult. The billiards game, meanwhile, is awkward to play and almost as boring as the real thing.
The app has a lot of bells and whistles – when you win a game, it sticks a crown on your head. But having to download some of the games the first time you play slows you down, and in these trying times, who has that kind of energy? In the end, the three of us just used it as a normal video chat and had a much better time.
Worth it? Perhaps when you’ve exhausted the other options.
What is it? A mobile app native to iPhones, iPads and Mac desktops. Allows up to 32 people.
Price: Free (as long as you’re on the Apple train).
The experience: I was today years old when I learned you can FaceTime with 32 people, and honestly, I’m shocked. I have never been able to successfully FaceTime with more than three or four people, and I find it to be a perennial letdown. In fact, I sustained a long-distance relationship for one and a half years with my now husband on FaceTime, and it was probably the thing we fought about the most (try looking at the words “poor connection” and not making them a metaphor).
FaceTime is handy because it comes pre-installed if you have an iPhone, and you can use it internationally over a data connection, like WhatsApp. But I still think it’s best when there are only two people on the call.
Worth it? If you’re an Apple person, yes. If not, don’t buy an iPhone for this feature.
What is it? A video platform that allows 25 people and can be accessed through an app, Gmail or other Google accounts.
The experience: I have spent a lot of my life on Google Hangouts, probably because it’s easy to access through Gmail, and I have my email open pretty much all the time. I’ve used it in the quarantine era to workshop short stories with my fiction writing group and it wasn’t all smooth sailing – connectivity issues seem to be the norm, and you’re almost always looking at one big face, rather than a grid, which doesn’t make it easy if you’re doing more collaborative activities.
My pro tip for Google Hangouts is: open it in a pop-out window (there’s a button to do so) rather than viewing it inside your inbox, so you’re not checking email while spending quality time with your loved ones, which I swear I didn’t do.
Worth it? Why not? It’s free and you probably already have it!
What is it? According to my college-going brother-in-law, this video app with integrated games used to be cool, stopped being cool, and then became cool in the last few weeks again. It allows up to eight people.
Price: Free, extra for more games.
The experience: I first tried Houseparty when my family used it to celebrate a birthday. It’s fairly easy to use after everyone signs up, though we found the interface a bit difficult to navigate at first, which meant we accidentally left “parties” and missed several rounds of a game. But once we got the hang of it we had a pretty chill time playing Heads Up! (which is like Apples to Apples), trivia, Quick Draw (akin to Pictionary) and Chips and Guac (sort of like Cards Against Humanity).
This app, however, is definitely geared towards millennials and Gen-Z. For example, references to Lil Uzi Vert and the term “dank” were lost on some of our older players, and there are definitely some not-kid-friendly cards. At one point my eight-year-old niece was challenged to complete a song lyric. The right answer was Hennessy, which she chose. Good for her, but as far as alcoholic brand awareness goes, not ideal!
Worth it? Yes, but treat it like an actual house party (the beer pong kind) because it’s not for everyone.
What is it? Often used in business settings, Zoom allows up to 100 people on a call, and up to 500 if you pay for the expanded version.
Price: Free for one-on-one calls or up to 40 minutes with more than two people, then paid.
The experience: I never thought I would be excited to join a Zoom meeting, but this has become the go-to for many of my friends’ post-work hangouts. The ease with which many people can join is nice, and you can choose fun backgrounds and effects to take the vibe from work to play (like when you take off your blazer and put on a daring necklace for after-work drinks). Zoom also offers various layouts for how you see other people in the chat, so you can do a Brady Bunch tiled setup and avoid staring at yourself the whole time.
I’ve had the fewest connectivity issues on Zoom. But the time limit is annoying, so to use it longer you’ll need to find a friend who has access to the paid plan.
Worth it? It’s your best bet for a seamless group video chat and can accommodate large families like mine and wayward friends.
Rating: 4.5/5. I’m docking half a point because it should be free and unlimited right now.