Review: 6 top videoconferencing services put to the test

We compared Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, Google Meet, BlueJeans, and GoToMeeting in real-world tests to see which videoconferencing platforms perform best for business users. Here’s how they stack up.

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Microsoft Teams

Unlike the other platforms in this roundup, Microsoft Teams is meant to be an always-on collaboration tool that centers around group messaging and shared workspaces, with video meetings as an added component. Launched in 2017, Teams has now largely replaced Skype for Business as the communications hub for its Office 365 and Microsoft 365 suites, although legacy customers may still use Skype for Business. 

Plans and pricing

Teams only: free; up to 100 participants per call; 60-minute call limit

Microsoft 365 Business Basic: $5/user/month

Microsoft 365 Business Standard: $12.50/user/month

Microsoft 365 Business Premium: $20/user/month

Office 365 enterprise plans: start at $8/user/month

Microsoft 365 enterprise plans: start at $32/user/month

All Microsoft 365/Office 365 plans allow up to 300 participants per Teams call or up to 10,000 attendees for a live-stream event. Some M365/O365 plans offer a 30-day free trial. (See small business and enterprise plans and pricing details.)

User experience

Since undertaking last year’s review, my office has moved from Google Workspace to Office 365, making the process of scheduling a Microsoft Teams meeting through Outlook exceedingly simple. I have the Teams plug-in in Outlook, which means all I have to do is click New Teams Meeting, fill out all the necessary information, and hey presto, the meeting is scheduled.

It’s also worth noting that for users of the Teams app, a notification appears in the right-hand corner of your screen letting you know when a meeting has started. I’ve found this useful on several occasions in the past where meeting invites have gone awry.

Last year, I wasn’t overly impressed by my Microsoft Teams meeting experience. My biggest annoyance stemmed from being able to see only four participants on screen at a time — or one at a time if using the browser instead of the app. Since our original review was published, Microsoft Teams has undergone a lot of changes, all of which have significantly improved the in-meeting experience.

Users can now see up to 49 participants on a single screen and have the option to toggle through different viewing modes — including the informal Together Mode that groups participants as if they’re sitting together in an auditorium, coffee shop, or other settings. As the host for our test call, I tried out several Together Mode layouts. Despite being notified that this would change the view for all users, however, no one else could see the participants in that view. I found out after the call that each participant individually has to enable Together Mode in order for it to work. Custom backgrounds are also available, and participants can choose to upload their own backgrounds or pick from a selection of stock images provided by Microsoft.

videoconferencing review 2021 microsoft teams together mode Microsoft

Together Mode offers an informal view of Teams meeting participants, but it didn’t always work in our tests. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Similar to the other apps we tested, Teams provides a toolbar along the bottom of the screen for actions like turning the microphone and camera on and off, sharing your screen, and accessing the chat pane and participants list. The screen-sharing feature lets you share your whole desktop, a specific app window, or a PowerPoint presentation. You can also browse to a file or open up an interactive whiteboard. Another new feature Microsoft has added to Teams is the option to form breakout rooms, which worked seamlessly on our trial call.

A “More actions” button allows access to extras such as taking meeting notes and using a background image or the background blur effect. Participants are notified when the meeting is being recorded, and the recording is saved to OneDrive or SharePoint, depending on the type of meeting. And like Google Meet, Teams provides an impressive live closed-captioning feature that my colleagues could turn on and off as they liked; they all praised it highly for its accuracy. However, closed captioning is still not available to users dialing in via a browser.

One permissions quirk we found odd was that the other meeting participants could start and stop the meeting recording, with no way for the host to stop this from happening during the meeting. According to Microsoft’s support documentation, this is as intended: when an organization has an Office 365 Enterprise E1, E3 or E5 license and when approved by IT admins, internal users have start/stop recording permissions. (Meeting policies are applied to meeting organizers and to users, rather than controlled on a meeting-by-meeting basis.)

Audio and video quality

On the whole, we didn’t experience any serious issues with the audio or video quality on our Microsoft Teams call. Although the picture quality dipped in and out at times, at no point was it so bad that it affected our ability to have a successful call. Additionally, last year, some call participants experienced issues getting external hardware to work with the platform, but no such issues occurred this time around.

Management considerations

For organizations already using Microsoft 365 or Office 365, Microsoft Teams is the easiest and most obvious video call platform of choice. The changes Microsoft has made over the last year have vastly improved the platform, making for a much better overall user experience. Whether you need to host small team meetings or whole department calls, Microsoft Teams can now support a much wider range of use cases with relative ease.

However, if you’re planning to use Microsoft Teams to conduct video calls with external participants who aren’t team members, you need to consider how much their lack of access to some in-meeting features will affect their overall experience of the call. Also note that for those accessing the web version, Teams only supports Google Chrome and Chromium-based Microsoft Edge fully; other browsers have limited or no support. Again, this might not be a deal breaker but is something to keep in mind depending on who's going to take part in your meetings.

Microsoft does not offer end-to-end encryption for Teams video meetings. (Its product road map says E2E encryption is coming in July for 1-to-1 VoIP calls only.) The free version does provide data encryption at rest and in transit but not the enterprise security, compliance, and administration features that come with Office 365/Microsoft 365, such as enforced multi-factor authentication, advanced auditing and reporting services, and configurable user settings and policies. For more information, see Microsoft’s security and compliance documentation for Teams.

Bottom line

Pros: Excellent real-time transcription; plentiful in-meeting options for participants in the host organization

Cons: Non-Office 365 members have limited in-meeting capabilities, which could hamper the call experience for external participants

My colleagues and I were pleasantly surprised by our experience with Microsoft Teams this time around. The improvements Microsoft has consistently been rolling out over the last 12 months have made for a much better UI.

As with Google Meet for Workspace users, Office 365/Microsoft 365 users who already make use of the other products Microsoft offers may find Teams to be a perfectly adequate go-to platform for internal video calls. However, if you’re looking for a platform to enable better collaboration with both internal and external partners who aren’t already invested in the Microsoft universe, you might want to consider a more agnostic platform.

Zoom

Zoom Video Communications was founded in 2011 by Eric Yuan, a former Webex executive, with the goal of making videoconferencing easy and accessible. Now the 800-pound gorilla of the videoconferencing software market, Zoom has become the face of the pandemic, with “Zoom” entering the mainstream vernacular as a synonym for a video call on any platform.

On the downside, “Zoom bombing” has come to mean uninvited attendees in any online meeting, while “Zoom fatigue” is the new catch-all buzzword for most forms of remote work burnout. Despite those negative connotations, the platform’s business has continued to boom, with its 2021 first quarter total revenue standing at $956.2 million, up 191% year on year.

Plans and pricing

Basic: Free; up to 100 participants per call; 40-minute call limit

Pro: $150/license/year; up to 100 participants per call

Business: $200/license/year (minimum 10 licenses); up to 300 participants per call

Enterprise: $250/license/year (minimum 50 licenses); up to 500 participants per call

The number of participants per call can be raised to 1,000 for any paid plan with the Large Meetings add-on. (See plans and pricing details.)

User experience

Setting up a meeting in Zoom is easy. If you want to initiate a meeting there and then, you log on to the website, select Host a Meeting — you’re given the choice to have video on or off — and away you go. Zoom also offers an Outlook integration that allows users to schedule a call directly from their inbox, rather than using Zoom’s website.

If you want to schedule a future meeting, it’s the same deal, only you’re taken to a form where you fill in the basic meeting details — cameras on or off, enable meeting recording, set up a waiting room, etc. Once you’ve scheduled the meeting, you can share it via your Google, Outlook, or Yahoo calendar and input the participants’ email addresses. The invite is emailed to them, complete with dial-in number for the host’s country as well as a link to a list of dial-in numbers for more than 50 countries. 

Joining a meeting is similarly easy. You click the link in the invite you received, and if the host hasn’t joined yet, you sit in a waiting room. If the host is already on the call, they accept you into the meeting, and you’re in.

videoconferencing review 2021 zoom gallery view Zoom

Zoom lets you see up to 49 meeting participants on-screen at once. (Click image to enlarge it.)

When we tested the platforms last year, Zoom already had a number of beneficial features in place that other platforms had to play catch up to. However, the company’s “move fast, break stuff” mentality that had made it a market leader wasn’t without consequence, as the platform came under fire for a number of privacy and security issues in 2019 and early 2020. Zoom appears to have slowed things down in the last year, working on fixing and strengthening existing features rather than adding gimmicks just for the sake of it.  

For users on a call, the in-meeting features are easy to find, easy to use, and work how you would expect. As the host I could mute and unmute participants, turn off screen sharing for attendees, make other people joint-hosts and rename people once they had dialed into the call. Zoom also gives users the options to share individual desktop windows rather than an all-encompassing screen share, which is definitely preferable for privacy.

When the host or another user records a meeting, both an audio and a visual notification appear on-screen alerting users. (The host must grant permission for other users to record the call.) Zoom automatically gives users who record the session a version with both audio and video, an audio-only version, plus a transcription of the chat log. Meetings can be recorded either locally or in the cloud, and both the audio and the video in our recording were of high quality.

When we tested Zoom, it didn’t offer in-meeting closed captioning à la Google Meet and Microsoft Teams, but the company does have a partnership with AI transcription service Otter.ai that brings real-time transcripts and interactive meeting notes to users of Zoom’s paid plans. The two companies have also recently launched Otter Assistant, an AI tool that will automatically join Zoom meetings, take notes, and share them with meeting participants.

Zoom also offers a lot of great in-meeting participation tools, including a whiteboard, a chat window where you can send messages to the group or individual attendees, a “raise hand” option that lets the host know if one of the muted participants has a question or a comment, and reactions so meeting attendees can silently express their agreement via one of two basic emojis.

The platform has also beefed up its background customization capabilities. Alongside the ability to set virtual backgrounds, users can touch up their appearance, readjust their video for low

Audio and video quality

When entering a Zoom meeting, you’re asked if you want to use your computer’s audio, microphone and camera, and if you select yes, it works as you’d expect. This made joining meetings stress free. 

Zoom lets users know if they’re experiencing bandwidth problems by flashing a notice across the screen, which can prove useful if you’re unsure why your colleagues are having a hard time understanding you. Although the picture wasn’t quite as sharp as it was on other platforms — Zoom appears to soften the video of every participant to the same degree —at no point did the video or audio drop below a quality that meant we couldn’t continue with the meeting.

Something else to note with Zoom is that the platform automatically provides a much tighter video crop than other platforms. There is, however, the option for participants to select between different camera crops.

In addition to our test call, I’ve also attended Zoom calls in recent months with participant numbers ranging from 50 to 150 and have not experienced any major video, audio, or bandwidth problems.

Management considerations

Zoom offers a free plan plus three paid plans that tick off the standard boxes for administrative tools, including user management, feature control, reporting, and more. However, last year we couldn’t fully recommend the platform due to a number of security and privacy issues. As we noted at the time, some of the security issues arose from users not understanding how to configure the Zoom software to protect their meetings, but industry watchers have argued that security settings should be enabled by default, especially for a platform that has made its name on ease of use. 

It appears that Zoom took those issues seriously and has worked to fix the problems and rebuild trust with its customers by taking measures such as implementing AES 256-bit GCM encryption to secure data in transit, tightening up security options by default, beefing up hosts’ in-meeting controls, and offering optional end-to-end encryption. (As with Cisco Webex, using E2E encryption with Zoom means that features such as cloud recording, breakout rooms, polling, and meeting reactions are disabled.)

More recently, the company rolled out privacy notifications to its app that let users know who can save and share their content and information. That said, Zoom’s popularity makes it a tempting target for hackers, and concerns persist about private or sensitive data leaking through the app.

Bottom line

Pros: Easy to use; lots of in-meeting features and participation tools; can view up to 49 people at one time

Cons: Meetings limited to 40 minutes with free plan

Of all the platforms we tested, Zoom was the easiest and most self-explanatory to use. Unlike other calls where a lot of time was taken up collectively trying to work out how to find a specific feature or solve a technical issue, on this call we were able to test everything easily and have fun with features such as the whiteboard and screen sharing. While the 40-minute limit on meetings for free users can sometimes be a bit frustrating, it’s hard to argue against the platform’s ease of use and ability to do all the things you’d expect a video call to do — and do them well.  

Choosing a videoconferencing platform

Across the board, we were pleased with the audio and video quality, in-meeting features and management tools for these platforms. However, it should be noted that local infrastructure plays a big role in A/V quality, and typically there was more lag between participants located far away from one another. Having all participants use headphones often improves the audio, as does the practice of having participants mute themselves when they’re not talking.

Of all the platforms we tested, Zoom is arguably the easiest and most intuitive to set up and use, and it offers the largest range of in-meeting features. While the security issues the platform faced last year were a genuine cause for concern, the company has taken solid steps over the last year to address them. Zoom now uses 256-bit TLS encryption, and meeting, webinar, and messaging content can be encrypted using AES-256 encryption and optional end-to-end encryption.

Furthermore, meeting hosts are now provided with lots of additional in-meeting security capabilities, including the ability to disable recording, temporarily pause screen sharing when a new window is opened, and use a passcode to protect meetings. Currently, Zoom appears to be no less secure than any of the other platforms we tested this year, although its popularity makes it an alluring target for attacks.

Cisco Webex was ahead of the curve last year, being the only platform in our previous roundup to offer end-to-end encryption as an option. While Zoom now offers E2E as well, Webex remains a solid, secure, feature-rich choice. With a reported 400+ new capabilities having been added to the platform since September 2020, Webex users can now do everything from cancel out background noise to access live, in-meeting translation from over 100 languages. However, these features are only available with paid plans, so if you don’t have the final say over budgetary decisions, you need to make the use case to whoever does.

If E2E encryption isn’t a necessity, the other platforms in our roundup do offer enterprise-grade security and management options including Single Sign-On, diagnostic reports, and admin portals.

GoToMeeting might not be the fanciest videoconferencing platform currently on offer, but if you’re unbothered about bells and whistles, this could be a good option for your organization. It provides a solid set of in-meeting tools for hosts and offers a good range of toll-free numbers. BlueJeans offers a similarly basic but functional experience and could be the platform of choice if your organization doesn’t have a heavy reliance on long meetings with a large number of participants.

However, the video quality offered by these platforms wasn’t of the same caliber as some of their competitors. Additionally, both platforms only offer a two-week free trial, with the free version of GoToMeeting limiting meetings to four participants.

For quick internal catch-ups with your team, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams are logical go-to options for Google Workspace and Office 365/Microsoft 365 customers, respectively. Before it rebranded to Google Meet, Google Hangouts was very aptly named, as the simplicity of the platform gave it an informal feel, like you were hanging out with friends. Because Microsoft Teams integrates chat and a shared workspace, its interface is more complex but still informal.

Both platforms have made some significant changes to the user experience over the last year, and if we were handing out a “most improved” award, Microsoft Teams would be the winner. Everything I remember disliking about the platform last year seems to have changed for the better, from the number of on-screen participants to how easy and intuitive the app is.

Similarly, while Google Meet continues to offer a basic experience, it manages to so in a way that isn’t clunky and doesn’t make you feel like you’re being punished for having opted for a free version. While it’s perhaps not the best platform for large-scale, formal meetings, it works really well if you need to have an impromptu catch-up with a small number of colleagues.

Of course, these reviews are subjective, and the features my colleagues and I look for in a videoconferencing platform might not be the same as those your organization needs. We’ve included a table below to help you compare the key features and capabilities offered by the six products we tested. We hope this guide allows you to make a more informed decision about which software is right for your business and to improve the productivity and collaboration of your employees.

Feature comparison: BlueJeans, Webex, Meet, GoToMeeting, Teams & Zoom

(Scroll or drag the table to see more columns, or download the table as an Excel file.)

This article was originally published in April 2020 and updated in June 2021.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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