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Google Hangouts vs. Zoom: Which video-chat app is better during quarantine?

Coronavirus has many people staying home and connecting with friends and coworkers through video chat. Here are two options for staying in touch.

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To slow the spread of coronavirus, many governments have imposed quarantines, lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders. This means many people are now working from home and in-person visits have moved to video-chat apps and services.

There are many options available, whether you're looking for a way to virtual happy hour or host a brainstorming session with coworkers, and two popular choices are Zoom and Google Hangouts. Here's how the two video-chat and conferencing apps compare -- especially in light of Zoom's recent security and privacy issues

Screenshot by Abrar Al-Heeti

Google Hangouts is the tech giant's app for free video and voice calls as well as group messaging. You need a Google account to start a call, but you can join one without it. You can invite up to 150 people to a Google Hangouts chat, but only up to 25 can join a video call at once.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Google is also offering many of the features of its business version, Google Hangouts Meet, for free to help people, businesses and schools stay connected. You can now host larger meetings of up to 250 participants for free on a call, and live streaming is supported for up to 100,000 viewers within a domain, and you can also record meetings and save them in Google Drive. You can take advantage of the free tools until Sept. 30. 

With Google's speech-to-text feature, Hangouts Meet has the option for real-time captioning in meetings or video chats -- great for people who are hearing impaired or who need to keep the volume down. 

You can use Google Hangouts through its app for iOS or Android, your web browser, its Chrome extension, or through your Gmail account. To start a call, open or on the sidebar in Gmail. Select a person from the Hangouts list, or search for their name or email address, and click it. Click Video call. In the app, open it up and tap the + button. Then enter your contact's name or email, and hit the camera icon to start a video call. 

Read more: Zoom, Skype, FaceTime: 11 tips for your video chat apps

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Zoom video conference app works for Android, iOS, PC and Mac. The app offers a basic free plan that hosts up to 100 participants. There are also options for small and medium business teams ($15-$20 a month per host) and large enterprises for $20 a month per host with a 50-host minimum. You can adjust meeting times, and select multiple hosts. Up to 1,000 people can participate in a single Zoom video call, and 49 videos can appear on the screen at once.

The app has HD video and audio capabilities, collaboration tools like simultaneous screen-sharing and co-annotation, and the ability to record meetings and generate transcripts. Outlook, Gmail and iCal support scheduling and starting meetings. In Gmail, for example, just click the calendar icon, then click the time of your meeting, then click the link under Join Zoom Meeting. If the host scheduled it, there might also be call-in options. 

Read more: 13 Zoom video chat tips, tricks and hidden features

If your mic and camera are off, Zoom has the option to communicate via chat (the interface looks a bit like Slack). This feature can also be helpful if it's a massive all-hands meeting and the opportunity for questions is available. 

It's free to sign up with Zoom -- you can either manually create an account with an email or sign in with Google or Facebook. 

If you use Zoom, it's important to take into consideration the security issues that have come to light since its rapid rise in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. Privacy experts have expressed concerns over the video-conferencing software's privacy risks and hacking vulnerabilities, as well as zoombombing (where uninvited attendees break into and disrupt meetings). The New York City Department of Education recently told teachers to stop using Zoom in favor of Microsoft Teams while security threats are addressed by the company

However, if you're still using the platform, there are some steps you can take to protect your meetings, like using a per-meeting ID and enabling the "Waiting Room" feature so you can see who's attempting to join a meeting before allowing access.

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