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The top 5 video chat apps to get you through coronavirus lockdowns

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

With cities across the world locking down to prevent the continued spread of the novel coronavirus, people are, understandably, feeling increasingly isolated from friends and family. But we live in a time when virtually everyone has a high-quality camera in their pocket, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones.

And with a litany of apps available on both Apple’s (AAPL) iOS and Google’s Android, there’s no shortage of ways to virtually connect. But not all video apps are built the same. Chances are you’re looking for an app that’s either easy to use, familiar, or straight-up fun. 

That’s where I come in. After using these apps, and spending a night playing “Mario Kart 8” with my friends while video chatting, I’ve got a decent idea of what you should and shouldn’t download. Here are the 5 best video chat apps, in no particular order, to help you stay in touch with your loved ones during the coronavirus lockdown.

Houseparty

Houseparty has exploded in popularity thanks to its ability to let 8 people chat at a time, and its built-in games. (Image: Houseparty)

Best features: Eight people can chat at once. Built-in games to keep the conversation flowing.

The details: Around since 2016, Houseparty has since gone viral — its Twitter mentions have exploded with the institution of social distancing measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The app supports video chat for up to eight people at a time via iOS and Android devices, the Chrome browser, or Apple’s macOS.

Epic Games, the owner of Fortnite, purchased the app in 2019, which makes its current virality an almost prescient move by the gaming giant.

Outside of being able to chat with, and see, seven of your friends and family members at once, Houseparty offers built-in game integration. Titles include “Trivia,” “Guac and Chip,” and “Quick Draw!” But the one that gets you to stay and play is easily “Heads Up!” A smartphone mainstay, “Heads Up!” sees one player try to guess a word or phrase based on clues given to them by other players. 

The smartphone-based game that’s both addictive and fun is available through Houseparty with one free category to play through called Trending. All of the other “Heads Up!” decks will cost you $0.99.

Inexpensive and fun. Not bad.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook's Messenger lets up to eight people to video chat at once, and features emojis, stickers, and more fun options to keep your chats lively. (Image: Facebook)

Best feature: Everyone from your cousin to your neighbor’s best friend has it.

The details: Got Facebook (FB)? Who are we kidding, of course you do. Which means Facebook’s Messenger, or as the social network prefers it to be called, Messenger, could be the easiest video chat solution of all.

Messenger gives you the ability to video chat with up to eight people, including yourself, at a time, featuring everything from augmented reality effects, stickers, and more. For its simplicity, ease of use, and the fact that virtually everyone you know is available through Messenger, Facebook’s video chat option is one of the best go-to options to stay connected.

Of course, if you’ve got an issue with Facebook’s data and privacy policies, well, Messenger might not be for you.

WhatsApp

WhatsApp lets you chat with four people at a time, but offers end-to-end encryption for the security-minded. (Image: WhatsApp)

Best feature: End-to-end encrypted chat for the security-minded.

The details: One of the most popular messaging apps on the planet, WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook (FB), boasts an incredible 2 billion users around the globe. That’s a lot of people to chat with.

Unlike Facebook’s Messenger, WhatsApp limits the number of people you can video chat with to just four at a time including yourself. So it’s not exactly the best option for larger groups. That said, like its voice calls, WhatsApp encrypts video chats, meaning you don’t have to worry about someone intercepting your conversation.

It’s a no-fuss option for the security-minded social distancer.

Google Hangouts

Hangouts is the old standby, but lets up to 10 people chat at once, making it great for larger groups. (Image: Google)

Best feature: An old standby that allows up to 10 people to chat at once.

The details: This one is the granddaddy of the lot. Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Hangouts, previously Gchat for the older millennials out there, is the chat app you access through your standard Gmail account. Hangouts is about as barebones as it gets. There are no emojis, no stickers, and no augmented reality features. It’s just you and your friends.

But what Hangouts does have going for it is its ability to host as many as 10 people in a video chat at once. That’s a solid number for a quality virtual cocktail party while you’re locked in your home on a Friday or Saturday night.

Zoom

Zoom is the hot video chat app of the moment, and lets 100 people chat at once, but that free tier is limited to 40-minute calls. (Image: Zoom)

Best feature: Up to 100 can chat at once.

The details: Zoom (ZM), one of the few profitable companies to IPO in 2019, took off in popularity in recent years thanks to the proliferation of the software in business settings. But it can also come in handy for hanging out with friends virtually. The free version of the app can support up to 100 people on a video call at the same time, which makes for one heck of an online get-together.

The problem is, you’ll only be able to stay on your video chat for 40 minutes before it’ll be shut down. You can subscribe to Zoom, but you’d be better served using one of the free services listed above.

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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at danielphowley@protonmail.com or dhowley@yahoofinance.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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