Understanding Video calls : Skype, FaceTime and Zoom

Friday 10 July 2020 · Rob Gregory · 6 minute read

During lockdown many of us have come to rely on apps that help us keep in touch with family and friends. In this post I'll show you how to use the 3 most commonly used video calling apps.

Apps that help us communicate with family members have been around for years. During lockdown many of us have come to rely on them to communicate with family members, often on a daily basis. For many 'Zooming' the grandchildren has become second nature however for many understanding the difference between these apps, how they work and the various settings and options can be confusing.

What is a video call?

Unlike a traditional phone call a video call is made using moving pictures and sound. Often you can have more than 2 people on a video call. The great thing about using video as well as sound is that you get to see the other people on the call rather than just hear them.

The benefit of seeing the other participants is that you have a more personal connection with the individuals you are speaking with. Seeing a person's face gives you a greater understanding of their emotions and how they are responding to whatever you are talking about.

For sighted people visual cues can be a very important part of communication, especially where children are concerned.

What is Skype

Skype was probably the first widely used video calling system and was launched back in 2003. Now owned by Microsoft Skype started out as a video calling tool for personal use but was quickly picked up by the business community. Skype can be used on pretty much all devices via either a web browser or an app that can be downloaded to your tablet or phone.

To use Skype you can either use an existing Microsoft account or signup and create whats known as a Skype ID. Once you have a Skype ID you can share this with others and they can "call" you using that ID.

Skype allows for multiple people to be on a call at the same time. At the time of writing the upper limit is 50 (that's a lot of grandchildren). Skype is free to use.

What is FaceTime

FaceTime is the video calling app offered by Apple. In true Appy style you can only use FaceTime to make calls between yours and other Apple devices. That’s iPhones, iPads, iMacs and Macbooks but not Windows or Android devices.

FaceTime comes installed when you buy a new Apple device so nothing to download or install. Its pretty simple to use as it automatically knows if any of your contacts have FaceTime meaning with one tap you can make your first video call.

FaceTime allows for multiple people to be on a call at the same time. At the time of writing the upper limit is 32. Facetime is free to use.

What is Zoom

Zoom is the big story of coronavirus in the technology world. Its usage has grown due to people around the world suddenly looking for new ways to keep in touch. Zoom said daily user numbers spiked to 200 million in March, up from 10 million in December.

Just like Skype and FaceTime Zoom is a tool that you can use to make video calls. Just like Skype it can be used on all devices by downloading an app. There have been some security concerns about Zoom however these have been addressed so you can be comfortable using it.

Zoom has a free plan however there is an upper limit of 100 participants and a time limit of 40 minutes on group calls (unlimited one-to-one calls).

Preparing to make a video call

To make a video call you need to know the details of the other person or people on the call. Like with a phone call where you use a phone number to connect to the other person video calls use a personal identifier to connect the call.

  • Light source i.e. window should be in front of you i.e. light hitting your face not the back of your head.
  • Use a stand or cushion to prop up your device ideally at eye height or slightly above. Holding your phone in your had can become painful or at best uncomfortable.
  • Sit on a comfortable seat.
  • Remove background noise like the radio or TV
  • Make a drink before you start, if you're lucky your grandchildren will have some long stories to tell :-)

Phone, tablet, laptop or computer

You might wonder what device you need to use FaceTime, Skype and Zoom. I wish the answer was simple but like with many things technology based there is a bit "it depends" factor. One thing is for sure you need a device with a camera and microphone.

You'll also need an internet connection, either WiFi or your mobile phone 3G/4G/5G is fine (you'll need to consider data usage though).

The table below shows you which devices you can use each of the 3 video calling apps on.

Phone Tablet Laptop/desktop
Skype Yes via app Yes via app Yes via application or website
FaceTime Yes via app
(Apple phones only)
iPads only Yes via app
(Apple laptops and desktops only)
Zoom Yes via app Yes via app Yes via application

What about data usage

If you are at home then its best to use your WiFi connection as there are no extra costs for making a video call over the internet in this way. However if you have a poor internet connection or you are not at home (or even just in the garden) then you can make a video call using your phone's internet connection.

3G/4G and now increasingly 5G connections are just fine for making video calls however you do need to be mindful of the data they consume. Sending and receiving video does use a relatively large amount of data compared to sending an email or browsing the web.

Depending on your phone contract your data allowance might be limited or going over a certain threshold might trigger a high cost for data usage. No need to worry just check it out before making lots of video calls using your phone's internet connection rather than WiFi.

Security and privacy

You might be concerned about security and privacy of your video calls. That’s natural but these services work very hard to keep your security and privacy intact.

Zoom had some problems during the early part of 2020 as some of their security was lacking potentially allowing strangers to join a group call. However these issues have now been fixed and there are extra steps you can take to ensure your calls remain private and secure.

  • Always use a strong password (complicated) for any account you set up.
  • Only invite people you know to join a call.
  • Only accept an invitation to join a call from someone you know.
  • If you are using Zoom make sur you make

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