Video conferencing Services, Part II: Free Options for Casual Meetings

If you're making a long-distance presentation to business prospects, doing a remote deposition or webinar, you should probably go for the crisper audio, sharper video and fancier controls of a business-grade, paid video conferencing service

But say you're a small business or a department looking for something more like casual-Friday conferencing: You want to meet with two or three dispersed coworkers to get real work done, huddling over a shared screen or document or recording a brainstorming session. While you have to hear clearly, pass the mike around and clearly see the document or demo, you don't need to accommodate a Brady Bunch matrix of talking heads or be able to tell whether Steven shaved that morning.

In that case, you have a range of free or near-free video and web conferencing services to choose from. Most are the stripped-down freemium versions of paid services, limited in size or duration or functionality. But many are quite full-featured, and make it easy for you to scale up by shelling out as needed. Here are three in this category.

Skype 

Skype is the vehicle from which consumer-level video chat took off, and has the advantage of running on both Android and iOS, desktop and mobile platforms.  It also comes with screen sharing and even whiteboarding, although its user interface has kept these tools pretty well hidden over the years.  It officially will let you host meetings of up to 25 participants, although that's likely to stretch video quality beyond acceptable limits. It's handy to keep running in the background, letting dispersed coworkers text-chat each other quick questions, pass files, and ramp up to screen share or video as needed.  Small downsides: you must download the app and make sure your fellow meeting attendees are in your contact list.

Since being acquired by Microsoft,  Skype has lent its name and its UI to an enterprise-level version, Skype for Business, which comes with a paid Office 365 subscription.  According to PC Magazine's review of February 2017, you can also get Microsoft Skype for Business as a standalone product starting at $2 per user per month, or $5 per user per month if you want Outlook integration, browser-based participants, and remote attendee desktop control.  But the permutations of offerings and packages are so convoluted that I wouldn't count on it to still be in force in 2018.

Google Hangouts

Like Skype, Google Hangouts requires you to load the folks you conference with on your Contacts list.  You all must have Google accounts, but that buys you extra functionality; namely, the ability to share views and editing rights to Google documents, be they text, spreadsheets or slide presentations. You're limited to 10 participants, but on a cable broadband connection, plain Hangouts can deliver poor audio quality on a mere 1-to-one call.

Once you have a paid Google Suite account, Hangouts can theoretically go up to 25 attendees.  In fairness, Google does advise testing and configuring your network to support Hangouts video calls.

Google's official Hangout product for business was launched in 2016 as Hangouts Meet, which requires Google Suite and simplifies joining with a simple shared link. Meet also introduces Calendar integration and a four-piece hardware kit, reminiscent of HighFive. It includes a touchscreen controller, speakermic, 4K sensor camera, and Asus Chromebox.

The touchscreen controller lets an administrator pin and mute attendees, control the camera, and add audio-only participants by dialing out. The speakermic cleans up audio by eliminating echo and background noise. The 4K sensor camera has a 120-degree view and machine-learning capabilities to detect and automatically crop and zoom participants. The Chromebox automatically pushes updates to other kit components.

There's been much complaining about the confusing number of Google messaging and collaboration apps. Something called Duo was supposed to replace Hangouts, but didn't. There's also Allo, for more animated and Google Assistant-aided messaging, and Jamboard.   Reviewed in the recent online installation-international site, Jamboard has been demoed as a "whiteboard in the cloud." It allows separated teams to huddle and draw and annotate over a virtually shared large touchscreen. It can also work with microphone and webcam, so if you want to do your conferencing standing up, around physical white boards, this may be the tool for you.

Freemeeting.com

Freemeeting.com, with a long history in free audio-only conferencing, will do the same for video if  downloaded as an app for Chrome (16 or up) or Firefox (15 or up). (Internet Explorer and Safari only support screen sharing.)  For a free service, it comes with an impressive number of features.  In addition to sharing screens, you can upload materials,  and schedule meetings through Outlook or Google calendars. You even get dial-in numbers and meeting codes for audio-only participants. Comes with 1 GB of free storage. and free recording and playback of the shared screen and primary audio feed.

You can conference with up to 1,000 participants, five of which can have video feeds, depending on active speaker.  You can also take remote control of another's computer, making it a good choice for technical support.   If live presentations scare you, you can prerecord them in Studio and play them during the conference or give out a link for attendees to play at their convenience.  The playback is limited to audio and screen sharing, but this is fine for software demos and tech support. The meeting dashboard even lets you pass notes through individual chat sessions, see who's connected via audio, who with video, and screen sharing. You can also mute individuals.

Freeconferencing.com comes with Slack, DropBox and Evernote integrations.

Premium accounts get you more storage, toll-free call-in numbers, audiences over 1,000 and machine transcription of your audio.  Really cool is FCC's Keywords feature, which lets you skip forward in playback to the mentions of said keywords.

Again, if you're ushering outsiders, potential hires or customers into your meetings, you'll probably want to spring for the videoconferencing platforms that, at a minimum, reliably deliver high definition and clear audio between more than three or four endpoints. But if huddling over content is your main goal, and you keep it limited to friendly participants, free videoconferencing services may fit the bill. 

Topics: Business Technology, video conference, video call