Use these free apps to get you through self-isolation

We may be distancing, but we can still be social. Apps like Zoom, Houseparty and Twitch have stepped in to fill the void – and taken on new life


Ever since COVID-19 forced us all indoors, our phones have been exploding with apps. We’d never heard of Zoom before last week, but suddenly that’s where we do most face-to-face communication – unless it’s one of the other five video chat apps we’ve been testing against each other. The accepted terminology has gone from social distancing to physical distancing, and it makes sense – we’re still being social, we’re just relying on technological solutions to feel the void of human contact. 

To help you navigate this strange new quarantined world, we tested out five of the most suddenly popular apps and laid out what they are, why they’re popular, the creative ways people have been using them (often quite different from the ways they’re intended) and the potential problems with each one. 

Zoom

What is it? This Silicon Valley video meeting app and software has given Skype and Google Hangouts a run for their money since social distancing became the term on everyone’s lips. According to data collected by Learnbonds.com, downloads for Zoom have increased by 1,270 per cent in the last month. It’s currently the top free downloaded app in Apple’s app store. 

What is it for? It’s designed as a video conferencing or e-meeting app, and it’s certainly been used that way since many people transitioned to their home offices. (“Why not a phone call?” some people have wondered. “I’m in my pajamas!”) The free tier can handle up to 100 people for up to 40 minutes, but you have to pay for more time. It’s user friendly out of the box. There are a few different ways to view everyone, a bunch of people at once or focusing on the person talking at any given time. You can chat with text while video chatting, mute and unmute at will, toggle the video view on and off. You can also put on filters and change your background. 

What have people been using it for? Definitely not just meetings. Book clubs, virtual dinner parties and happy hours, a nightclub with tens of thousands of people. Last week, I played pub trivia live via Zoom and came in sixth place (out of more than 20, OK?!). 

What’s wrong with it? It’s a bit of a privacy nightmare and it’s already developing a troll problem. Use with caution. Richard Trapunski

Twitch

What is it? This video livestreaming service was popular and valuable long before the era of distancing – enough to be bought by Amazon. It’s one of the top traffic-getters on the internet. 

What is it for? Video game casting and eSports – also booming industries before we were all forced indoors. The gamers are way ahead of us when it comes to creative distancing.

What have people been using it for? All sorts of fun and weird stuff. Twitch was once pretty cold to anyone who didn’t present as a gamer, with all that term’s coded implications, but nowadays the non-gaming streams are thriving. There are categories dedicated to talk shows and podcasts, art and “creative” where you can find people streaming concerts, improvised synth soundscapes, AI experiments, calming marathons of Bob Ross, old episodes of Beavis & Butthead, bad movie watch parties, wrestling simulators, drag shows and just about anything else you could think of. 

What’s wrong with it? It’s not the best when it comes to discovery. There isn’t an option to see who the people that you’re following are following, so you mostly have to either know what you’re looking for, follow a link or just see what’s already live and tune in like an old television. There’s also the fact that it’s owned by the already COVID-boosted Amazon, which is often criticized for shady business practices, treatment of employees and its ties to ICE. RT

Houseparty

What is it? A free video call app where users can start their own chatroom or jump uninvited into other friends’ rooms like you’re room-hopping at a house party. You can find or invite friends to the app from your phone contacts or your Facebook or Snapchat accounts. It’s another one with ties to the gaming world – it’s owned by Epic Games, the parent company of Fortnite.

What is it for? Primarily it’s used for video chat, but you can send individual text messages too. You can aimlessly search for someone to talk to without having to call any specific person. Within the video chatrooms, you can also play games like Heads Up!, trivia and Pictionary.

What have people been using it for? Although the app launched in 2016 and was already popular with teens, it’s had a huge surge in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic. A major component of Houseparty is crashing other “parties” – since you can see and join any friend’s video chat, even if you’re not connected to the other participants. If you don’t want other people joining, you can “lock” the room.

What’s wrong with it? While Zoom can host up to 100 people in the free tier, Houseparty only allows eight people per room, which means no massive “ragers.” It also sends a notification any time one of your friends opens the app which can get annoying quickly, so make sure to toggle those off. Samantha Edwards

Netflix Party 

What is it? A free Google Chrome browser extension that synchronizes Netflix videos so friends can watch together at the same time.

What is it for? Watching the same Netflix movie or shows with friends. It lets you start and pause a stream at the same time, which means you don’t have to synchronize the old-fashioned way, i.e. yelling “Three, two, one…Play” and hoping there’s not too much of a lag. There’s also a sidebar where you can chat and wisecrack throughout. 

What have people been using it for? Since movie nights with friends are on hiatus, the extension lets you have virtual binge-sessions. When I’ve used it, my friends and I also have a Google Hangouts video chat open to discuss plot points, make jokes or share important commentary, like “Wow, Jennifer Lopez looks amazing in Anaconda.” 

What’s wrong with it? Everyone needs to have a Netflix account and it only works with Chrome. It’s also pretty glitchy at the moment – it took me multiple tries to get it working – so here’s hoping that it becomes more stable soon. SE

Kosmi

What is it? A free web app to chat, play games or watch movies with friends online. You can start your own “room” and invite friends by sharing the link or make it public so strangers can join. Unlike a lot of apps, you don’t need an account or have to download anything to use Kosmi. All the features are accessible within the browser.  

What is it for? You can do all kinds of stuff on Kosmi: video chat, play any card game, watch YouTube videos and play video games like OpenArena. It also has NES and SNES emulators and browser screen sharing so you can stream any site like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Disney+ with friends.

What have people been using it for? Kosmi’s not as popular or widespread as Zoom or Houseparty, but you can do way more with it. You can play old Nintendo classics like Super Mario Brothers 3 and Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, watch movies on Crave or play your weekly poker game. Video chat is integrated, so unlike Netflix Party, you don’t have to set up another app for chatting.

What’s wrong with it? Sometimes it can be a bit laggy and you might encounter ­some bugs in the games. SE

@trapunski | @SamEdwardsTO

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