Are you familiar with virtual meeting tools and what features they offer? This article explores popular tools such as Zoom and WebEx meetings.
This article distills information from various sources that are current as of 05/28/2020; information will be periodically updated. Note that features (mentioned below) for the products are valid currently, but vendors may change these features in the future. This article may be considered a starting point for investigating these tools and their features.
There is a wide array of Teleconferencing products. Many vendors offer products for virtual meetings. However, vendors also tend to distinguish virtual meetings from other modalities of video telecommunications such as teams, training, webinars, and webcasts. Typically, vendors offer a line of different products for each purpose. Features of interest may not all exist in a single product. In addition, there is also a wide variety of features among virtual meeting products.
Next, many vendors offer enterprise licensing for large organizations. If a given product is available to you through your organization, the features of interest may be constrained by how your organization chooses to configure and deploy the product to its employees.
All of this complicates navigating and comparing the available products and their features. This article is not meant to cover everything. Here, we focus only on virtual meeting products and those features likely to be relevant to the HPC/CSE community in a work-at-home (small to medium scale) setting and that have some degree of variability in support across vendors.
In the table below:
- We've tried to provide as many links as possible to information relevant to a given feature.
- Partial means some support for the feature exists but not at the level of support one would expect.
- Maybe means the feature may exist depending on other factors outside of the typical user's control.
- Numbered footnotes are links to additional information.
- Abbreviations have balloon hints that are revealed by hovering the mouse over them.
- TBD means to be done.
Most vendors offer a free plan. However, these typically come with length and/or size limitations. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic situation, some vendors have either lowered prices of their paid plans or relaxed limitations of their free plans.
Simply attending another host's meeting does not typically require a user to purchase a plan. However, recent security concerns in some products may cause some meeting hosts to adjust their meeting's security settings such that users are required to have an account with the vendor before logging in and this in turn may require users to obtain a plan even if only the free one.
If you do need to host meetings and you do not already have a plan through your home organization, the lowest-level paid plan in any of these products is probably sufficient for most project's needs.
Most vendors charge monthly, per host account and then offer a few different plans based on meeting size and plan features. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic situation, some vendors are offering discounts on their plans for a year-long purchase. In addition, most vendors offer enterprise level accounts designed for large organizations with many users, each of which may require their own host account.
The maximum meeting size is the maximum number of participants in a meeting. A number of vendors draw a distinction between a meeting, which typically requires participants to interact (e.g., speak, exchange chat messages, share content, etc.) and other modalities of video telecommunications such as a webinar where the majority of people are mere attendees who just need to hear and view content. Some products offer two different limits: one on interactive participants and another on listen/view-only attendees.
For enterprise products, the maximum meeting size may also depend on how your organization's plan administrator has configured it.
Be aware that many people like to use an ordinary telephoneA for the audio part of the meeting and their computer for everything else. This is because ordinary telephone audio (landline/cell) is often more reliable than VoIP-audio. If their internet connection fails during the meeting, they can still at least listen and speak. This raises a couple of potential issues. First, there is no practical advantage in doing this if the "telephone" the user employs is using a VoIP service. Next, participants use this approach and do not also bind the phone call connection together with their computer connection, they appear to the system as two different meeting participants, taking up two slots. If a majority of participants wind up using this approach in a large meeting, the effective size limit can be reduced by almost a factor of two.
What happens if a meeting exceeds its size limit? In most cases, attempts to join a meeting that is at its size capacity will be prevented. A key question is if and how the host may be notified of this. At present, this behavior is unclear.
- A = Audio-only telephone device using landline, cell or VoIP
- W = Web-browser device often using a browser-extension
- M = Mobile device (phone or tablet) operating over the internet
- L = Laptop or desktop computer device operating over the internet
- VCS = Video Conferencing System with dedicated hardware/network
It can be convenient to provide your meeting participants with a way of attending that does not require them to download or install any new software. This is typically possible only if they connect through a web browser. Even then, some vendor's products may require a browser extension to be downloaded. In addition, this approach also typically means that such participants have limited functionality. For example, they may not be able to host a meeting as a presenter and share content from their browser.
So much of human interaction involves non-verbal cues. Poor video quality can dramatically reduce participants' ability to interpret non-verbal cues. Among participants with long-standing, pre-existing, high-functioning relationships, the ability to interpret non-verbal cues is not as essential. However, high-definition (HD) video can be essential in other circumstances, particularly those where the people involved are meeting for the first time.
In the COVID-19 pandemic situation, with so many people being forced to work from home, the increase in network load has caused some vendors to temporarily disable support for high-definition video.
In addition, most vendors' products automatically adjust video quality based on moment-to-moment network responsiveness. Each participant's local network and/or the wide-area network loads may be such that even if high-definition video is supported, the network loads will not support it.
For first-time users, without actually participating in a meeting it can be difficult to know for sure whether the audio and video of your particular configuration will work with the vendor's product. A test meeting is a useful way to test your particular setup to ensure it works, at a basic level, with the vendor's software and service. You may not be able to test all features, but you should be able to test basic audio and video support. Most vendors provide a test meeting for this purpose. Zoom provides a means to test audio and video each time prior to connecting to a new meeting.
Free dial-in option
For those who wish to connect audio via ordinary telephone (landline or cell), it can be convenient to provide your meeting participants with a toll-free option. This feature may be particularly important for international participants. While this feature is common across many vendors' products, enabling it typically involves additional cost. However, enterprise plans as part of your home organization may provide the feature.
Virtual meeting tools provide a variety of features to allow meeting participants to share content. In the absence of any one of these features, there are often acceptable work-arounds using other dedicated tools. For example, Google docs can be used for some kinds of content sharing, including some limited whiteboarding; Google forms can be used for polling attendees; and Google hangouts (now called Google Meet) can be used for chat.
Screen sharing is a feature that allows the host/presenter to share everything on his/her screen with all the participants. All teleconference tools support this feature even from mobile devices. However, a number of tools also support variations of this feature for different needs, as described below.
Shared audio is a feature that allows any audio content, such as videos with sound, music or podcasts, to be properly handled such that attendees here direct audio as opposed to indirect audio (e.g. out through the presenter's speakers and back in through the presenter's microphone). It means audio originating from content on the presenter's computer needs to be mixed with audio of the presenter's voice, etc. Not all teleconferencing tools support this.
App (or Application) sharing is like Screen Sharing except that the windows of only a single application (e.g., PowerPoint or Word) are shared. The host/presenter is not forced to share an entire screen but can select only the window(s) from a specific application to share. This approach can be useful in cases where the host/presenter tends to have a lot of windows open, and they want to keep the participants from accidentally seeing the content of those other windows. When you have a choice, using application-specific sharing is a best privacy practice.
A shared whiteboard is similar to but not quite the same functionality as Shared Annotations. A shared whiteboard is a separate drawing area, like a whiteboard in an office, where all participants can doodle content and paste images that they capture locally.
For some, a shared whiteboard is more than just a realization shared drawing area where content is created by a mouse or keyboard. The whiteboard includes the integrations necessary to create content using a tablet and pen-based drawing gestures with touch sensitivity, etc. Currently, no virtual meeting vendors provide such an experience in their shared whiteboard features. In fact, there are few dedicated shared whiteboard solutions available that work on all platforms that support tablet & pan-based drawing gestures.
Shared annotations are similar to but not quite the same as Screen Sharing. Shared annotations allow the presenter/host to draw annotations on top of whatever content is being displayed in the main window so that all other participants can see it. In addition, some products allow attendees also to draw shared annotations.
All vendors typically provide some kind of a chat feature that allows participants to send text messages to each other. We use the term able chat to mean that the chat handles more than just raw text. For example, an able chat handles functionality such as cut-and-paste across applications, clickable URL links, private messages between participants (instead only to all participants), drag-and-drop for some file types, showing who else may be in the midst of typing a chat message, the ability to save all chat messages to a text file, and allowing the host to disable chat if necessary. In the absence of able chat, a clumsy but sufficient work-around is to use a shared Google doc or Google Hangout. Of course, there is still the issue of how best to distribute a link to meeting participants, probably via email. Note that Zoom's chat is not persisted to newly arriving attendees. A newly arriving attendee in Zoom will not see any chats that occurred prior to their arrival.
Voting or polling
Polling is a feature that allows the host to ask participants a question and have them anonymously vote their responses. In the absence of this feature, a clumsy but sufficient work-around is to use Google forms by creating the form and then pasting a link to the form in your meeting's chat window, allowing all participants to easily go there to vote their response.
File sharing allows participants to share whole files, which attendees can then download to their own systems. This feature has varying levels of support among products, often restricted by file types (e.g., extensions). Some vendors provide support for scripts and even augmented reality files. File sharing, especially executable scripts, may introduce additional security concerns.
Recording of a virtual meeting session is often convenient for participants who were unable to attend to watch later or for a scribe to go back and fill in gaps in meeting notes. However, recordings are generally not useful for replacing meeting notes because of the summarization often involved in the curation of such notes.
The various products provide differing levels of support for what content gets recorded. Some products may not make a record of chat messages, for example. Recorded chat may or may not be synced with A/V content. It can sometimes be useful for the host to select the content to be recorded (e.g., audio-only).
Some vendors provide support for producing textual transcriptions from recordings. Recordings can introduce privacy concerns, so it is a best practice to obtain written consent not only to create a recording but also to specify with whom the recording may later be shared.
Recorded sessions can be transcribed into time-stamped text to enable easy searching of the recorded stream. Transcription typically requires about 2x the recording time to complete and is typically available only for sessions recorded to the cloud and pricier plans.
All vendors offer some support for closed captioning. Typically, the support provided is just the display of captions. The generation of captions is delegated to some other service. For example, a live captioner is a person who transcribes the conversation in real time during a meeting, much like a court stenographer. Those participants who wish can then enable display of closed captions. Some vendors appear already to provide or plan to provide add-on features with automatic captioning.
Some products offer the ability to stream a live session to platforms like YouTube or Facebook. Of course, this also means that the session will be effectively be recorded but only on that platform.
The web client typically allows users to join a meeting through their browser. A web client is often advantageous because it usually allows users to avoid having to install software on their machine. Sometimes, however, the user may have to download a browser extension to support the web client. In addition, web clients often do not support features needed by a meeting host or presenter but are intended primarily to support only meeting attendees.
The recommended platform is either the OS or browser that supports the most features or is the platform recommended by the vendor.
Depending on the kind of information to be processed in a virtual meeting, the level of security the product provides may or may not be an issue. When security vulnerabilities of a given virtual meeting product are a concern, one possible though inconvenient work-around is for all meeting participants to be on the same virtual private network (VPN). This approach adds significantly to the logistical aspects of running a virtual meeting but may be the best option in some circumstances.
Recent security concerns in various virtual meeting products have been all the rage in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, many sources lack the technical background to provide any sort of evaluation of the level of risk of issues encountered with respect to the kinds of information to be processed. When we have found technically competent sources, we provide links to them in the table.
For each product, when there is a collection of best practices for ensuring the best possible level of security when using that product for a meeting, we indicate that in the table and provide a link.
When a meeting is locked, it cannot be joined by any other participants even with the correct credentials. Participants who leave a locked meeting cannot re-join.
Expelling or removing an attendee is typically a power that only meeting hosts have. It is important for hosts to know how to do this quickly. If for some reason the meeting is bombed, quick action from the host can correct the situation before it gets out of hand.
In most products, an attendee who is expelled cannot rejoin that meeting instance; the attendee would have to use a wholly different identity or email address. Thus, it is important for hosts to take care when taking the drastic action of expelling an attendee. Some products do enable a host to recover from this situation, however, allowing an inadvertently expelled attendee to rejoin with the same identity.
Privacy is related to but also distinct from security. While security is about safeguarding data of any kind, privacy is specifically about safeguarding personally identifiable information (PII) as well as a person's rights about how that information is managed by a third party.
A potentially common privacy-related situation in virtual meeting settings is the use of a product's recording feature. Doing so without consent of all parties may create a significant breach of privacy laws. Making the recording available to a wider audience than attendees believe they originally consented to may also create a privacy issue.
Another example is whether the system may notify the host if an attendee has changed application focus away from the virtual meeting application to something else. Such functionality might be wholly appropriate for an elementary school teacher in a virtual classroom setting needing to keep an eye on his students. However, if the same thing were to happen among adult, professional colleagues without their consent, it may not be viewed too kindly.
End-to-end encryption (E2EE) is a system of communication where only the communicating users have the ability to decrypt and read the messages. If this feature is essential, readers should take caution to read as much as possible about how a given product supports E2EE.
A personal room is the virtual equivalent of a meeting place that only the owner has the keys to open for an event. Only the owner can host meetings there and s/he can do so at any time and without advanced scheduling. A personal room is typically a static URL where anyone with the link can go at any time to meet with the owner and others to whom the owner has given the link. This feature is useful for spontaneous meetings and open meetings, where the owner is connected and waiting but probably engaged in other tasks and can be interrupted by another person who enters their room. Some products support notifications that inform an owner that someone is trying to enter a room when the owner is not already connected there.
Breakout rooms are a feature that makes it possible for a single meeting to break into sub-meetings among smaller groups of participants and, after a period of time, re-join back into the single large meeting.
In the absence of direct support for breakout rooms, there are other ways of using either personal rooms or multiple, parallel scheduled virtual meetings to serve as breakout rooms. If breakout room leaders each have their own personal rooms, each can use their personal room as a breakout room. A minor inconvenience with this approach is that attendees are not typically allowed to be in multiple virtual meetings simultaneously. So, attendees wind up having to disconnect from one meeting and connect to another to move between the main meeting and the breakout rooms (which to be honest isn't too different from real-world breakout rooms).
It turns out that the current implementation of breakout rooms in Zoom is fairly limited in that the host must decide which attendees go into which rooms. For large numbers of attendees there is an automated random assignment but there is no way for attendees to leave one breakout room and join another or to have different breakout rooms representing wholly different activity and allow attendees to decide for themselves which room (e.g. activity) they want to go to. The rooms have a specific time limit and when the time is up, they are all ended and everyone is re-joined to the main meeting.
A virtual background is an image (some products also support short video loops) that displays as though you are seated just in front of it. Some products may require a real-world constant color (typically green) called a green-screen behind you. Newer products can make this feature work without requiring anything special behind you. In particular, you can hide a messy office by using a photo you take of your office when it was once clean.
Bandwidth management are those features of the virtual meeting product that enable any attendee to do some amount of management of the bandwidth to/from their device. An example is WebEx's ability for an attendee to disable all incoming video. Other options may involve aspects of tools apart from the virtual meeting software itself. For example, the camera you use may have ability to control video quality explicitly allowing you to always share only low quality video to conserve bandwidth.
Experiences in actual use
In this section, we capture some high-level, subjective assessments of the products as well as their perceived suitability in various usage scenarios, based on experiences from actual use.
We use a 4-point Likert subjective quality scale:
- Excellent - Product truly enables/facilitates the use case.
- Good - Product supports the use case well.
- Workable - Product handles the use case but overlooking some shortcomings.
- Poor - Product really doesn't support this use case without relying upon other tools.
Technical project meetings
A technical project meeting involves a lot of technical dialog and technical diagrams, some of which are either created or revised and shared live. This kind of technical exchange can involve shared screens, shared whiteboards, and shared annotations. Anyone on the team may use a screen grab tool or even a cell phone to capture and save content that is created this way.
In hands-on training scenarios, raise-hand, chat, and even break-out room features can be important. Breakout rooms can be useful for people (e.g., helpers for the training session) to sit virtually with participants who encounter problems and need some direct help without interrupting the training leader. Breakout rooms also are helpful in this use case for the hands-on leader and helpers to walk the virtual room and check on individual participants, even looking at their screen and work.
Most of the products described here are excellent for virtual pair programming. In fact, pair programming with these technologies is likely easier than in a traditional scenario, where the two participants might have to squint over a single laptop screen.
Interviewing involves people meeting for the first time. Interviewing requires good high-definition video, good audio, and reliable network performance to be fully effective. Chances are, whether these products are really suitable in this use case probably depends more on prevailing network performance at the time the interview is conducted than anything else. There are some best practices to follow when conducting interviews in this manner.
Hack-a-thons typically involve many individuals and teams coming together in the same venue to collaborate and develop software. There is a need for a virtual event that consists of all participants as well as smaller virtual meeting rooms for individual teams. Depending on size, a breakout room feature may work for the individual teams. If all participants are part of some larger organization through which they all have access to an enterprise level product, then each team's virtual room can likely be created using one of the team member's personal rooms.
Virtual water cooler
All of the products here are perfectly sufficient for virtual water cooler chats. In many cases, if the participants know each other well, video may not even be needed nor any sharing of content. Audio-only virtual water cooler chats work great and give participants a chance to socialize in a way similar to how they might if they were all together at the same work site. In the real world, water cooler chats are spontaneous, whereas in the virtual world, some amount of scheduling may be involved. One approach is to identify one person to serve as a host during some agreed upon time(s). The host's job is to start and end the virtual water cooler event at the agreed upon time(s), and others can be free to decide to join or not as they wish. Another aspect to virtual water cooler chats is that the host may also need to perform some moderator/facilitator duties. This need arises because many of the visual cues about who wants to speak at any given moment are often missing, and it becomes necessary to take a slightly more formal approach, with someone (e.g., the host) helping to moderate and facilitate the discussion. There are many other ideas on the use of video teleconferencing technology for virtual water cooler conversations.
To be done
The information here is evolving and we have only limited resources to create and maintain it. We intend to make routine updates.
- Many products compared but small feature set
- Virtual Conferences: A Guide to Best Practices
- [az]: Maximum number of attendees depends on the plan. There is a Large Meeting add-on option (not for the free plan) available for purchase, on a month-to-month basis, to expand the maximum to 1000. There is also a Webinar add-on option for purchase, on a month-to-month basis, to expand up to 10,000 view-only participants.
- [bz]: Zoom's free plan is limited to 40 minutes. The time limit for other plans is 24 hours.
- [cz]: Zoom's no-install option requires a web client and has limited functionality. Hosts/presenters cannot use this option.
- [dz]: Be aware of recently revealed security issues about Zoom's chat.
- [ez]: Live streaming to YouTube/Facebook is supported only in Zoom's Webinar product.
- [fz]: Zoom virtual backgrounds can be videos.
- [aw]: WebEx Meetings is one of a variety of products offered by WebEx. Some features described in this article that are not supported by WebEx Meetings may be supported in other WebEx products.
- [bw]: WebEx's free plan limits of 50 participants and 40 minutes has been temporarily upgraded to 100 participants and 24 hours.
- [cw]: Apart from the selected plan, a number of other factors may affect a WebEx meeting's maximum number of participants. WebEx meetings can have up to 1,000 interactive participants and up to 3,000 view-only participants. Meeting capacity varies a lot by product and by how a site administrator, if applicable, configures an enterprise plan.
- [dw]: It appears expelled attendees may rejoin as long as the meeting has not been locked.
- [ew]: WebEx's no-install option requires a web client and has limited functionality. Hosts and presenters cannot use this option.
- [fw]: 2E encryption appears to be available only in WebEx's Enterprise plan.
- [gw]: Cloud recording is not available in WebEx's free plan.
- [hw]: WebEx plans to offer automatic, AI-assisted closed captioning as part of an add-on product called WebEx Assistant later this year.
- [iw]: WebEx virtual background currently works only on mobile platforms.