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With an enormous number of people social
distancing as the world tries to curb the spread of COVID-19, Zoom Meetings (free, with paid plans starting at $14.99 per month per host) has zoomed into
focus as a top choice among video conferencing tools. You can
make video calls while working from home and use it for
other kinds of virtual get-togethers. I have a weekly Zoom happy hour with
friends, for example. My niece had a show-and-tell call with her classmates not
long ago. On Twitter, some have even mentioned attending funerals remotely
using Zoom. The app has certainly caught on. A representative for Zoom said via
email that in December 2019, Zoom saw an average of 10 million daily meeting
participants. In March 2020, that number was 200 million.

PCMag believes that Zoom is among the
best video calling apps, provided new users take a few moments to acquaint
themselves with the tool’s features. It remains an Editors’ Choice, although we
have bumped the score down by a half point since we last updated this review in
light of recent privacy and security concerns. Zoom Meetings is a go-to choice for work-related meetings due
to its stability and reliability. It can be a great option for personal use.
For government and healthcare use, be sure to look closely at Zoom’s offerings
for those specific sectors.

Recent Concerns

With increased use comes increased scrutiny on
security, as well as increased attempts at exploitation. Under these conditions,
some flaws and gaffes have come to light, though the company has been quick to issue clarifications and fixes, to its credit.

The company had said it used end-to-end
encryption, but had to clarify that claim. End-to-end
encryption is used for calls between people using Zoom apps or Zoom Room,
provided no one is recording the call (there is an option to record).
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. It
would be impossible for Zoom to encrypt the audio through every leg of such a journey, as the company has now explained. 

Another issue was related to encryption keys.
Zoom owns many servers, some of which are located in China. The China-based
servers had been generating encryption keys that were given to users
in other countries, which is considered a security risk. Again, the company quickly addressed the issue and gave a nuanced account of what was happening and how the
company had fixed the problem. Additionally, users can now control which countries their video conferences routed through.

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, the company was quick to acknowledge the problem and make appropriate changes.

Finally, there were cases of people hijacking
in-progress meetings with inappropriate content. This Zoom-bombing, as it’s now called,
seems to have occurred mostly due to meeting hosts not knowing that they would
have to enable certain features to better protect their calls. Again, Zoom addressed the problem, quickly making changes to its default settings.

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 for how you could make a video call to your friends or
colleagues, but the problem was that 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
(hereafter referred to as simply “Zoom”), a new company focused on
making video calls smoother and more reliable.

Flash forward to today: San Jose,
California-based Zoom has become a darling in the tech industry—with a
successful initial public offering (IPO) announced in April 2019 to
match—because it has made good on its promise: to solve video calls. The rest
of the world has gotten wind of its strong reputation, albeit with more mixed
results as of late.

Zoom Meetings, Zoom’s core product, impresses for
other reasons, too. It has a fantastic feature set that includes, for example,
high definition (HD) video and audio and the ability to get typed transcripts
of calls that you record as videos (that last one is reserved for paying
members only). It considers the needs of people who join calls only
occasionally as well as remote teams who connect daily.

Anyone can use Zoom Meetings for free. Small
businesses can buy reasonably priced plans that beef up the features (which, as
stated earlier, start from $14.99 per month per host). Enterprises get plenty
of components they can add, too, including a full Voice-over-IP (VoIP) service called
Zoom Phone. In the breadth of what it offers, Zoom Meetings is similar to VoIP
Editors’ Choices Intermedia Unite and RingCentral Meetings. 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 Meetings, and it shows.

Getting Started With Zoom Meetings

If you’re invited to a meeting in Zoom Meetings,
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 Android, iOS, Linux, Windows,
and macOS.

If you want to use Zoom Meetings to host a
meeting and invite others to join, then you need to create an account. You can
authenticate with Facebook or Google, or sign up the old-fashioned way 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 send your PMI to participants without advance notice and get on
the call quickly. You also have the ability to generate a unique meeting ID for
each new meeting, which is preferable for security reasons, although there are
times when using the PMI is much more convenient, especially among small groups
that meet regularly.

You and the participants have the option
to use the audio from your computer or mobile device for the call or dial in by
using a standard rate or toll-free number where supported. There is not a
toll-free number for the US or the UK, although there are toll-free numbers 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 in the meeting invitation.

Zoom Meetings’ free account is generous. You can
host up to 100 people on a call for free and you can see as many as 49 people
on an active call in a gallery-style view. Group calls for free users are
limited to 40 minutes, but one-on-one calls can be as long as you need. There’s
no limit on how many meetings you can host. You get all of the most important
features and tools, but you don’t get reports, user management, or
administrator controls. This tier also does not include any cloud space to
store recorded calls. You can still record calls and store the final videos
locally, however.

Settings differ between the locally installed
app and the web app, and it’s in your best interest to explore both. The
settings are plentiful and worth revisiting from time to time as you become
more acquainted with Zoom Meetings. For example, some options let you put
attendees on hold, give remote control to another person while sharing content,
and even have co-hosts on a call. That last one is limited to paying
subscribers.

Setting Up a Zoom Meeting

To set up or start a meeting using Zoom,
you have many 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 your calendar so
that all of your appointments end up on 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.

You can also password-protect your meetings.
Since Zoom enhanced its security features, the unique meeting ID and password
options are more prominent and selected by default. If you want to set a
password for your PMI, you can do that, too.

With a Pro account, you can also require that
attendees register; that is, fill out a short survey before they join so that
you can collect information about them. It’s a great option when you use Zoom
Meeting for webinars. Zoom lets you enable a waiting room if you need
one as well, which is a way to let participants join a meeting when they’re
ready, but only show an information screen if the host hasn’t officially
started yet. It’s also a way for the host to control who can join the meeting, and when. I wish an agenda field were included when creating the invitation,
but it isn’t. You have to send your agenda to participants separately.

When you use the Schedule function in the Zoom app to arrange a call, the invited participants receive a calendar
invite that includes the relevant information.

Zoom schedule a meeting

The Zoom Meetings Experience

I’ve used Zoom as both a participant and host
frequently, starting around 2017, including for weekly meetings with a remotely
distributed team. Joining a meeting takes little effort. It 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 either see a
waiting room notice or you go directly to the meeting. If there’s no waiting
room, attendees can connect and chat with one another before the host arrives.
Everyone can choose to enable or disable their video at any time. The host can
disable any participant’s microphone or camera at any time as well. If you join
using your device audio, then you can mute and unmute by using buttons on the screen,
or by using a shortcut if you enable it from your account preferences.

Hosts now see a new Security button on their
toolbar during active calls. This button gives hosts quick access to important
security features, such as locking the meeting, enabling a waiting room for any
additional guests who try to join, and giving participants permission to share
their screens, chat, and so forth.

Another helpful aspect of the interface is that
you can see  information about the
connectivity of everyone on the call. For example, I was once on a call with a
participant who was connecting over 4G. When her connection was stable, I saw a
white set of bars indicating the strength of connectivity on her video. When
the connection waned, the bars turned yellow and then red. I had instant and
recognizable information that helped me know why her video was degrading.

As a participant, you can configure your screen
to see relevant information panels and a chat box or not. You can also toggle a
setting that puts your Zoom window into full-screen mode automatically
when you join a call. Zoom lets you add more participants ad hoc. For
example, if you’re already on a call and realize that you need to invite more
people, then you can send the Personal Meeting ID or unique link to them and
they can pop in.

Zoom virtual background

Two features I mentioned earlier are Virtual
Backgrounds and Touch Up My Appearance. With the first one, you can make it
look like you’re in front of the San Francisco Bay’s Golden Gate Bridge instead
of in your messy living room. You can choose one of the backgrounds that Zoom
provides or upload a custom image or video, such as a company logo. If you care
less about your background and more about whether your face is camera-ready,
then the face filter is probably more apt (for iOS, Windows, and Mac OS). When
I use it, my wrinkles are all but gone, although so are my freckles.

Host controls in Zoom give you complete
control over how you run your meeting. As mentioned earlier, you can have a co-host
for meetings, which is a fantastic option for businesses that work in tandem
with a PR firm. Desktop sharing works well and supports multiple monitors. The
host can hand over desktop sharing controls to another participant, too. You
can also set up a side-by-side screenshare of your desktop and someone else’s,
which is a handy way to literally compare notes. During any screen-sharing
session, whether everyone’s looking at an image or video, participants and the
host can annotate and mark up whatever is on the screen. Zoom Meetings also has
a collaborative whiteboard you can use to brainstorm or map out ideas.

One feature that’s well suited to remote teams
is breakout rooms. From a single call, you can divide participants into groups,
send them into their own private video chat, and then bring everyone back
together when you’re ready. If you need to record a meeting so you can share it
with people who couldn’t attend, then you can save the file locally or use Zoom
Meetings’ included cloud storage (with its paid plans).

While Zoom has plentiful features, I’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 IFTTT
or Zapier, to carry it out. Zoom Meetings integrates with both those services.

Additional Zoom Meetings Features

Speaking of integration options, Zoom lets you connect to a fair, though not extensive, number of apps and online
services. They include general business apps, such as Google Calendar and Workplace by Facebook, as well as
apps for more specific business cases, such as the Salesforce Einstein Analytics Platform.

Zoom does offer Enterprise plans for $19.99 per
month per host with a minimum of 50. 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 also costs $19.99 per month per host, with a minimum of 10.
This plan supports up to 300 participants per call.

If your organization is large, then 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. Zoom also supports webinars, for when you want to
broadcast a video live but you don’t want attendees to be able to interrupt the
host.

On the back end, admins 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.

I 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. I 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, with plans starting 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 Pointers for New Zoom Users

With remote work and schooling suddenly way up due to efforts to stop the spread of novel coronavirus, new users are flocking to Zoom. The company knows this and has a page of resources for getting started, including links to training webinars. The app’s strong reputation is certainly a draw. If you’re new to Zoom but don’t need a full webinar to learn to use it, a few quick facts may be helpful.

1. If you use Zoom for free, you can have one-on-one calls that last as long as you like. For calls with three or more people, you’re limited to 40 minutes.

2. While demand for Zoom is exceptionally high due to coronavirus, the option to dial in by phone audio may be temporarily removed from free Basic accounts. You can still use computer audio to join. If you need to support dial-in by phone for your attendees, you may have to upgrade to a paid option.

3. There was a feature in Zoom, which is now gone, 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.” If you read other articles about Zoom and see a reference to this feature, don’t worry because it is no longer relevant.

4. Default start times for meetings are usually on the hour or half hour, making traffic to video conferencing sites spike then. Starting a call at another time, like 10 after the hour, may help if you have any trouble getting your calls up and running.

5. Two features that people love in Zoom, especially when working from home, are 1) a face filter called Touch Up My Appearance that smooths skin tones and 2) Virtual Backgrounds that let you hide your actual background with an image or video. To learn how to use these features and others, see our list of Zoom tips.

Zoom touch up settings

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 is to your benefit. 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.

Zoom Meetings fully deserves consideration as a
video conferencing app, and is a PCMag Editors’ Choice for video conferencing
along with Cisco Webex Meetings, Intermedia Unite, and Ringcentral Office.

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Further Reading

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