Video Conference Options

Public health officials are asking us to “Stay at Home” these days to slow the spread of COVID-19. This creates some challenges, since a significant percentage of my work with H2O Church and Reliant Mission is people-work. But I’m thankful that we have some work-arounds. Specifically: I’m doing a lot of video-conferencing these days.

This isn’t a new thing for me. I’ve been using video-conferencing for at least ten years, and it’s been a pretty regular part of my life because of ongoing connection to ministry work in Europe and North America. It’s definitely not as good as being in the same room together (though I can’t exactly figure out why). I’ve estimated that a video conference requires about 25% more energy than the equivalent real-life meeting. So some concessions must be made to successfully navigate video-conferencing dynamics: more break-time between (and potentially within) meetings… granting one person a more defined facilitator role… managing bandwidth by coordinating video and audio feeds (sometimes asking people to mute their microphones or kill their video)… staying patient with the extra-awkwardness that happens when two people start talking at the same time, or one person clearly starts talking but has his microphone muted… But video-conferencing is workable. It’s fine. It’s better than nothing.

I’ve used many different platforms through the years. But my experiences have varied widely — even within individual platforms. This is because a lot of variables come into play: each individual’s internet connection, lighting conditions, background noise dynamics, the devices used for connection, and so on. This morning, however, I got to test out four leading options under more static conditions with my colleague and friend, Lauren. We stayed patient through the process, methodically working through the inevitable problems that popped up. We sat in the same places, using the same internet connections (which we knew were not great internet connections, honestly), the same lighting, the same background noises, and the same devices. So I feel more confident comparing “apples to apples” after our experiments, and I feel like it could be helpful to share these observations.

Here’s how four leading options ranked after our experiments:

#4 – Google Hang-outs

Google Hang-outs is a pretty stable platform (the call didn’t drop, unexpectedly). The video and audio were not well-synchronized, though. The video was somewhat blurry. The audio for our voices was pretty clear, but there was a constant high hiss from Lauren’s computer fan. We couldn’t figure out any option for screen-sharing from my iPad. Lauren could share the screen from her laptop, but the inset video during her screen-share was weird (I could only see myself inset on Lauren’s screen, and Lauren couldn’t see either of us). We understand that Google is investing more of its time, money, and attention to its newer, paid, video-conferencing platform (Google Meet) — and the experiment seems to prove that this predecessor is sub-standard — but it is nice that most users don’t have to download anything to use this video-conferencing option, and almost everyone has a Google account.

#3 – Skype

This is the video-conferencing option with which I am most familiar. A friend and mentor with Great Commission Europe (GCE) often jokes about the joys of “Di-Skype-leship.” So I can verify (not just from my experiments with Lauren) that Skype is a stable platform, with fewer dropped calls than most of the other options I’ve experienced. In my experiment with Lauren, our video and audio were well-synchronized. The video quality was second-best of the four options we tested. The audio quality was fine for voices, but there was a very pronounced low hum from Lauren’s computer fan (it sounded like she was riding on an airplane at cruising altitude) which was pretty distracting. I also know (from previous experience) that the view on the screen of my mobile device could accommodate four or five different participants, or I could select an option to have the video follow the active speaker. Similar to the problems with Google Hang-out, Microsoft (Skype’s owner) is investing more of its time, money, and attention to its newer, paid, video-conferencing platform (Microsoft Teams). But Skype is still useful because the platform doesn’t cost anything, and it can accommodate up to 50 participants.

#2 – Zoom

It seems to me that Zoom has become the big “winner” of the video-conferencing “sweepstakes” during the current orders to Stay at Home. And rightfully so. It’s a stable platform. Its video and audio were well-synchronized on the tests that Lauren and I conducted. On a more nitpicky level, though, the video quality was slightly more pixellated than some of the other options. The audio quality also felt more metallic or robotic for voices, but it was remarkable (and refreshing) that there was no background noise detectable (the audio sampling must somehow block background noise). For our test, this meant that the fan on Lauren’s computer wasn’t an issue at all, and that may have been worth the price of the platform alone. Other sources have indicated that Zoom gives broader powers to the administrator or “host,” which could feel like an invasion of privacy (especially if participants don’t know that their video or audio can be accessed and enabled by the administrator at all times). But there are some benefits that come with the administrative controls, too, including easy screen-sharing features, the ability to mute problematic channels, and the option to establish “break-out rooms” for participants to interact in smaller subsets at different times. This platform does cost money for group calls exceeding 40 minutes, but it allows for as many as 100 participants — and its Gallery View is perhaps the most visually-appealing display option of all video conferencing platforms.

#1 – Discord

This was the surprise, dark-horse winner of our controlled test. We had some troubles getting connected for the first time — which could definitely be problematic for a group setting, where the “chain” is limited by the “weakest link,” or person with the least patience and/or problem-solving capacity. In our testing, we noticed that it worked better after Lauren downloaded the app for her laptop. Once we got through all the hassle of set-up, though, we were shocked by how good the video quality and audio quality were for our conversation. The video and audio were precisely-synchronized. It was easily the sharpest, cleanest, clearest video of all the platforms we tested together. It had great audio quality, too, with no background noise detectable. We couldn’t figure out how to share our screens with each other. But we decided that Discord is definitely a great option for a two-way conversation, and our research indicates that it can accommodate up to 10 participants.

Outside of the tests that Lauren and I conducted, I have also had personal experience with FaceTime (which I would rank near the top, as long as everyone involved on the call has an Apple device)… WhatsApp (which is probably on the lowest tier and limited in the number of potential participants)… and probably some others, too. The options are pretty diverse, but I hope it’s helpful to provide some observations that could be helpful for this season of distance communication.

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