Isolation, as you’ve likely discovered thanks to the COVID-19 quarantine, is pretty challenging. Holing up alone, or even with a few of your favorite people, can be draining for even the most introverted among us.
Which is why people have been flocking in droves to online, in-person social gatherings. Virtual happy hours, book clubs, and trivia nights have suddenly exploded in popularity.
A variety of free applications are helping us stay connected throughout the pandemic lockdown. (Honestly, thank goodness this thing happened in 2020… as opposed to 1985.)
But which apps work best for keeping in touch with family and other uses? Here’s a rundown.
7 Free Services for Keeping in Touch During COVID-19
Whether you’re looking to recreate your weekend brunch experience, join a book club, or just expand your binge-watching party, here are some of the best free services to help you stay connected.
This is the one that’s gotten all the press. When the country went into lockdown in early spring, folks have been using Zoom for work meetings, happy hours — even recreating Hamilton.
To be sure, Zoom has a lot of positives. The free version allows you to host up to 100 participants for unlimited one-on-one meetings of up to 40 minutes. The interface is pretty easy to understand, and it’s compatible across devices, though most commonly used in browser mode.
However, Zoom could be described as, well, vanilla. There aren’t many additional features that make it particularly attractive for fun, personal uses. But it’s a good starting point for just about any virtual group gathering.
Best for: Work meetings, webinars and general personal use.
Insider tip: You can easily start or stop your video or microphone at any point during the call if you need a break from being on-screen. In the web browser mode, the toggles are in the lower left corner of your screen.
If you’re an Apple user, chances are you’re already familiar with this one-on-one video conference application. Although it’s most commonly associated with the iPhone, it can also be used on an iPad or iPod Touch.
We like FaceTime for its clean interface and ease of use. But it’s definitely best used for one-on-one conversations; crowding the family in front of a cell phone camera isn’t easy. (Obviously, Android users need not apply.)
Best for: One-on-one conversations between Apple users.
Insider tip: If you’re using iOS version 12.1.4 or later, or iPadOS, you can capture still shots from your video call by tapping the shutter button.
Android users have been a little bit salty about the FaceTime thing for as long as we’ve had to communicate with Apple-using friends.
Fortunately, Google launched its own counterpart: Duo. And unlike FaceTime, Duo allows people to connect across devices and platforms, so you can download and use the app whether you’re team Android or team Apple. While it does support group calls of up to 12 people, we still think it’s best utilized for tete-a-tete meetings.
Best for: One-on-one conversations between users of Apple or Android.
Insider tip: Scheduling issues keeping you from connecting in real time? You can leave video messages with fun effects and filters — a major upgrade from voicemail.
4. Facebook Messenger Video
Because of COVID-19, Facebook went from a meaningless time sink to an actual lifeline for many of us — and its popular messenger feature has video conferencing as an option.
Facebook Messenger video is especially fun for families who are quarantined far apart; you can use facial filters and play games while on the call. It’s also available as a browser app, which allows screen sharing and the ability to easily add other Facebook messenger users to the call.
That said, we’re not a fan of the floating face bubbles the app uses to let you know you have a message. Other video conferencing apps have less intrusive notification systems.
Best for: People who are already on Facebook every waking moment and use messenger for most communication.
Insider tip: If you’re not quite ready for your close-up, you can use messenger’s voice message feature to record a voice memo instead.
5. Netflix Party
Remember movie nights — the kind where you gathered in one living room over a single bowl of popcorn?
Although social distancing may have put a temporary end to that experience, you can recreate it online with Netflix Party. This free browser extension (available for Chrome only) perfectly syncs up any video on Netflix for you and your friends and provides a scrolling chat so you can make silent commentary.
Best for: Movie nights and binge-watching TV shows as a group.
Insider tip: Although Netflix Party is available for free, you can support them on Patreon to help them roll out more new features like emojis, in-built voice chat and compatibility with other streaming services.
There’s a pretty common pattern with social media apps: What’s first adopted by younger generations gradually filters down (er, up?) to older millennials, boomers and beyond. Which may be why you’re only just now hearing of Houseparty, even though it’s been around since 2016.
Although it’s similar to apps like Facebook Messenger video or Duo, Houseparty is more like a video version of old-school instant messaging apps, like AIM or ICQ. That is to say, rather than scheduling a hangout ahead of time, you might just sign on to Houseparty to see which of your friends is available — and take it from there.
Houseparty also includes some fun integrated features, such as games like Heads Up! and Trivia.
Best for: Fun, casual group hangouts or virtual happy hours.
Insider tips: Houseparty, like Snapchat, uses gestural navigation… which can have a bit of a learning curve for us olds. Install it ahead of time and plan to spend a few minutes just playing around to see how it works.
Long known as the messaging app of choice for international travelers or those with security concerns, WhatsApp also supports video chat on most platforms — though if you’re an Android user, you’ll need version 4.1 or higher.
WhatsApp features end-to-end encryption, which means all the data you send and receive is private: No other party can access it, not even WhatsApp.
WhatsApp is also popular among people who live outside of the U.S., since it was one of the first messaging applications that allowed free conversation regardless of where you were on the globe.
Best for: Those with international contacts or who are concerned about security.
Insider tip: WhatsApp also has a text messaging feature — and it allows you to turn off read receipts, if you’d like a pressure-free texting experience.
Jamie Cattanach’s work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, The Huffington Post, The Motley Fool and other outlets. Learn more at www.jamiecattanach.com.