We’ve all spent a lot of time on Zoom calls lately, but the popular video calling platform isn’t perfect — and Facebook is offering an alternative with Messenger Rooms. This group video chat service is designed for socializing, whereas Zoom was a designed as a business tool and has gained popularity with the rest of us for its ability to create large video calls.
Messenger Rooms is designed as an easy-to-use virtual space to hang out, where people can drop in and out for however long the room is open. Up to 50 people can join and, unlike Zoom, there’s no time limit on your calls. Making a Facebook Room just takes a couple of taps from the Messenger app or Facebook itself, and you can invite anyone — including people who aren’t on Facebook — to join. Non-Facebook users only need to provide a display name to join a group, so Facebook is collecting minimal data.
Privacy and video calls
We expect our video calls to be private, but security has become a major concern with Zoom. Because calls have an ID that’s easy to guess, outsiders can Zoombomb calls and join even if they weren’t invited. Zoom has started enabling password protection and putting callers in a virtual waiting room where they require approval before they join, but it adds more hoops to jump through when you just want to chat.
Facebook has its own security concerns — the service has been victim to multiple data breaches and other privacy snafus — but it also keeps access simple. When you create a room, you can invite whoever you want, like just your Facebook friends, a specific group, or specific individuals. Rooms can also start open and then be locked, so it’s easy for anyone to join but secure once you have your group together. However, you have to unlock the room to let any latecomers join, defeating the drop by feature that Facebook is touting. You can also share a link that lets people join — and unlike Zoom, the URL is made up of random characters that people can’t just guess.
Encryption among video chat apps is also spotty. While most offer basic encryption to keep your data secure, few offer end-to-end encryption, which prevents anyone — including the company hosting your call — from seeing your data. Messenger Rooms is not end-to-end encrypted, but Facebook says it’s “actively working towards this.” If you want something more secure, your options are limited. Apple’s FaceTime lets you chat with up to 32 other users for as long as you want, but is limited to people who own an Apple device. Facebook’s WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, but only allows video chat for up to eight people.
Still, Messenger Rooms offers enough security features for casual hangouts and Facebook is working to add more.
How to use Messenger Rooms
There’s also also a big convenience factor. Rooms can be made with just a few clicks, it’s easy to invite people (and lock your room to only the people you want to talk to), and there’s no software to download. (If you use the Facebook Messenger app, you get a few extra features like backgrounds and AR effects, but you can make and join calls from your browser.) You can start calls from the Facebook website or through the Messenger app, but they work a little differently.
On Facebook itself, it's easiest to invite your friends, groups or specific friends:
- In the Rooms box at the top of your Facebook News Feed, click "Create."
- Click "Who is invited?" to invite specific Friends, your entire Friends List, or choose "Skip" to create a link that you can use to invite others. If you want to invite a group, create the Room from the Group's page instead.
- Select a activity for your room. You can leave it a the default "Your Name's Room," create your own activity, or chose from preset activities, including "Hanging Out," "Bored at Home," "Happy Hour," "Dinner," and "Game Night."
- Set a start time or leave it at "Now"
- Click Create Room.
- Join your room.
- Once you're in your room, you can select the People icon to invite more people and "Lock Room" to prevent anyone else from joining.
Using the Messenger app makes it easier to invite anyone:
- Tap People in the lower right
- Tap Create a Room
- Tap Share Link to get a link you can send to anyone
- Once people join, you can select the People icon to invite more people and "Lock Room" to prevent anyone else from joining.
The Facebook Messenger Rooms competition
If you want to video chat, Messenger Rooms is far from your only option. Beyond Zoom, there are quite a few competing apps:
- Houseparty, which allows up to eight callers with no time limits. This service is game-focused, offering party games that you can launch from the chat. You'll need a Houseparty account and the Houseparty app to participate.
- Skype, which allows up to 50 callers on calls of up to four hours each, with up to 100 hours of video calling per month. You'll need a Microsoft account and the Skype app to participate.
- FaceTime, which allows up to 32 callers with no time limits. FaceTime comes pre-loaded on Apple devices and it's only available to Apple owners. You need an iCloud account (which you should already have) to participate. This is one of the few options with end-to-end encryption.
- Google Hangouts Meet, another business-focused product, allows up to 100 callers with no time limit — though Google has only waived time limits for free accounts until September. You'll need a Google Account and you can join chats via your web browser or apps Android or iOS. If you use Gmail, you'll see Hangouts Meet in the lower left-hand corner of your Gmail window.
- Google Hangouts, Google's consumer-focused product, allows up to 10 callers with no time limit. You'll need a Google account and you can join chats via your web browser or apps for Android or iOS.
- WhatsApp, Facebook's-security focused chat program, allows up to eight callers with no time limit. You'll need a WhatsApp account and the WhatsApp app for your computer or mobile device.
Messenger Rooms is nice, but it’s not your only option — and it won’t appeal to people who don’t trust Facebook to keep their personal data safe.
[Image credits: Facebook, Techlicious/Facebook]