Zoom has become ubiquitous during the COVID-19 crisis to the point of even becoming the butt of a Saturday Night Live skit (NBC, April 11, 2020). But while it replaced the equally ubiquitous GoToMeeting seemingly overnight as the go-to app for hosting meetings, it is not without its faults. For one, the 40-minute limit on free accounts has caught many a host by surprise. (My wife and I have twice had our at-home X-Fit class cut out in the middle of a burpee set.) Also, Zoom bombing—intruders invading a Zoom meeting to disrupt it—has gotten a lot of press lately.
But people forget that there are alternatives to Zoom. In particular, Google Hangouts, Meet, and Duo all offer videoconferencing without cost. Each app is designed for a particular type of meeting, and by integrating seamlessly with Google’s other apps—such as Drive, Gmail, and YouTube—these systems provide many advantages over Zoom. Here I examine the features and best ways to use each.
Hangouts was released in 2013 as an alternative to GoToMeeting. It was free, easy to open and invite people into, and video focused. While GoToMeeting was built on the assumption that the main window would display the presenter’s PowerPoint, Hangouts was designed to allow participants’ webcam feeds to fill the main window. In this way GoToMeeting was designed to broadcast one person’s presentation to essentially passive viewers, whereas Hangouts meetings felt more like a gathering of equals around a conference table.
While my workgroup instantly started using Hangouts for our meetings, soon Zoom came along designed on similar a “video first” mode, and many people forgot about Hangouts. But Hangouts offers some advantages over Zoom. For one, its lower profile makes it a less likely target of intruders. Also, it allows for meetings up to 24 hours in length. It works on either a browser or an app and requires only a Google account to set up a meeting. Plus, it is built to stream YouTube videos without causing stalling problems on the user’s end because videos stream directly from YouTube to the users without having to go through the presenter’s computer.
Keep in mind that Hangouts has a 10-participant limit on its free plan. But if your institution is accredited and not-for-profit, it can sign up for G Suite for Education for free. This allows all faculty, staff, and students to have access to the myriad of apps in the Google constellation at the premium level. For instance, the Hangouts participant limit goes up to 25 with G Suite. Many K–12 school districts as well as some higher education institutions have switched to G Suite and are very happy with it, and so it is well worth lobbying your institution to sign up for this free service.
These advantages and limitations make Hangouts good for small group conversations, such as live meetings between students for group projects. The G Suite limit of 25 might also makes it work for a class-wide meeting, depending on the size of your class. Finally, you can record Hangouts with its free version, which makes it good for recording screencasts, thought the process is a bit convoluted. Zoom’s free version does not allow recording. You can get started with Hangouts here.
Google Hangouts recently spawned two new apps called Meet and Duo. Meet is designed for larger meetings of up to 100 participants. It even allows for up to 250 participants and 100,000 viewers in live stream. Until now, Meet has required a G Suite subscription to use, but Google just made Meet free to anyone with a Google account until September 30, 2020. It normally has a 60-minute time limit, though Google is also waiving this until at least September 30.
Meet has more features than Hangout and is comparable to Zoom in most regards. One nice advantage over Zoom is that users can send files through the chat feature, which is curiously missing from Zoom. There are many times when I wished I could share a file in Zoom, so this is a big plus for me—and I’m sure for others as well. Meet also allows for email integration with both Gmail and Outlook, while Zoom integrates only with Outlook. Plus, call in is included with Meet, whereas it requires an upgrade in Zoom. Finally, there is no add-on required to use Meet; Zoom requires an add-on.
Teachers who use Meet are very positive about it. The size limit makes it ideal for class-wide meetings and the live stream function is a great way to broadcast events to the public, such as a department or school talk. Like Zoom, you get a specific meeting ID that can be reused, which is very convenient for repeated meetings. The only real knock on Meet is that it relegates the controls and default user feeds to a box underneath the main screen, which some people find a bit messier than the more integrated look of Zoom. I happen to like the setup because I often find myself needing to move the video feed bar around my Zoom screen to keep it from covering up content, but others prefer the Zoom design. Learn more about Meet here.
Google Duo is a lesser-known app that is gaining popularity by the minute. It is designed to compete with Skype and FaceTime by facilitating one-on-one conversations between individuals and small meetings of up to 12 people. You can quickly start a voice or video conversation with someone by using their phone number or email address from your contacts, similar to making a phone call. This makes Meet particularly good for phone conferences on the run, though it can also be used on a computer.
Duo comes with a couple of features that make it an attractive alternative to competing apps. One, you can leave a video message for someone who does not answer a call. Two, its Knock Knock feature shows the video of the person calling to the person receiving the call before they answer. This allows the receiver to filter out unwanted calls. Learn more about Duo here.
Notice how Duo and Meet occupy opposite ends of the videoconferencing spectrum, with Duo working better for small meetings and Meet working better for large ones. Duo is ideal for quick conversations and help sessions with individual students—essentially, for virtual office hours. Hangouts occupies a middle ground that overlaps the two other apps, leading some to believe that it might be phased out in the future. Between these apps you get viable alternatives to Zoom with specific functionality designed for different uses and audiences.
Dillet, R. (2020, April 2). Zoom freezes feature development to fix security and privacy issues. https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/02/zoom-freezes-feature-development-to-fix-security-and-privacy-issues
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