Zoom review: The video meeting service became a verb in 2020
When coronavirus lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders began across much of the world in March, one question quickly entered the popular lexicon: "Wanna Zoom?"
Once only found in business settings, Zoom's video chat service quickly became the way millions of people connected during the pandemic. Even as the novelty of changing our Zoom backgrounds to make it look like we were beaming in from the Starship Enterprise wore off, and the excited glow of virtual connection began to fade as the months dragged on, Zoom remained the service that millions of people turned to for work and socializing.
Even a slate of security issues didn't seem to deter most from flocking to and remaining part of the platform, to the degree that it's really the only professional video chat service we use as a verb. By April, the platform had more than 300 million daily meeting participants, up from 10 million in December.
Perhaps most surprising of all, Zoom rose to the challenge of its influx of new users, with remarkably few service disruptions. Not only that, but several of its competitors began changing their interfaces and features to better compete with Zoom. For those reasons and more, we've named Zoom a CNET Editors' Choice.
Read more: How to use Zoom like a pro: 15 video chat tips and tricks to try now
Features that others try to copy
Zoom offers a number of useful features that leave it among the top video chat services for both business and pleasure. The one that got the most attention early on was changing your background, which proved a useful way of hiding your messy living room as people transitioned to work-from-home life. But the more under-the-radar hero is the "touch up my appearance" setting, which smooths your features to make you look just a little more polished. When I use other video chat apps that don't have that feature, I notice the difference.
Outside of aesthetics, Zoom has an easy-to-navigate interface. As a meeting host or guest, you can switch from speaker view (big window focused on the active speaker) to gallery view (a grid of video rectangles from everyone on the call). You can also mute or unmute your camera, turn video on and off, record the meeting, share your screen, virtually raise your hand and use the chat function or emoji reactions to respond.
As a meeting host, you can create smaller breakout rooms, and enable much-needed security settings like a waiting room (more on that below). Depending on which tier of the service you pay for, you can host up to 1,000 participants.
One of the biggest benefits: You can use Zoom for free. Anyone can sign up for a free account and host up to 100 participants for up to 40-minute group meetings, or unlimited one-on-one meetings. If you're looking for more, you can upgrade to Pro ($150 a year for each license), Business ($200 a year per license) or Enterprise ($200 a year per license), all of which come with unlimited group meeting times and other features.
The competition took notice of all of this. Soon after Zoom's rapid rise in the early days of the pandemic, Microsoft rolled out a change-your-background feature on its video chat service Teams. The company's consumer chat service Skype also got a new free video chat feature called Meet Now. Google began offering a free version of its enterprise video chat service Meet. Even Facebook got in on the action, releasing a new consumer video chat feature called Messenger Rooms, allowing for free video chats with up to 50 people. (If you're curious, we've broken down how Zoom competes with Microsoft Teams, Skype and Messenger Rooms.)
Easy to use and consistently works
A major reason for Zoom's success across businesses, schools and consumers is how easy it is to get started with the platform. Open the app and start a meeting, or join one through a link. You're automatically placed into the meeting interface, which is minimalistic and easy to use -- you'll see the buttons to turn your mic and camera on or off, and tabs for security, participants, chat, share screen, record, breakout rooms and reactions. And that's it. You don't have to deal with calendars or a difficult sign-up process.
At this point, everyone from elementary school kids to older adults have figured out how to Zoom. That can't be said of most other video conferencing services.
Zoom is also relatively stable compared to other video call services -- unless your internet connection is wonky, it usually works smoothly. This is anecdotal evidence, but I've had fewer connection interruptions and lag issues using Zoom than other platforms, and have heard the same from my coworkers.
Scaled-up security woes
The road to millions of users was paved with security challenges (read our timeline of every issue uncovered here). However, the company responded to each incident and has since bolstered both built-in protections and extra security that you can choose to put in place.
In March, we saw several reports of Zoombombing, an issue where uninvited guests disrupt meetings. In one incident, hackers broke into a classroom meeting and displayed a swastika on students' screens. This led the FBI to issue a public warning about Zoom's security vulnerabilities. Several more major bugs and issues were uncovered, including the fact that Zoom call data was being sent back to the company without the end-to-end encryption promised in its marketing materials. Several lawsuits followed.
Zoom CEO Eric Yuan issued apologies for each major incident, and plans to improve. On April 1, the company froze new features and put all engineering resources toward improving privacy. It also hired security firms to create a bug bounty program, and, in October, brought end-to-end encryption to all users.
The company isn't out of the privacy woods yet, though. In November, Zoom agreed to implement better security for video calls under a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission. The FTC claimed that since at least 2016, Zoom misleadingly claimed to offer "end-to-end, 256-bit encryption," when it actually provided a lower level of security, among other issues.
Zoom didn't confirm or deny the allegations in the settlement, but agreed to implement a new mandated information security program within 60 days. It also agreed to use more secure safeguards such as multifactor authentication and data deletion. It said it would document potential risks annually and ways to mitigate those risks, and implement a vulnerability management program. Independent security audits are required every other year.
To be clear, these security issues are concerning. But you do have a lot of power to protect yourself and your Zoom meetings from harm. For example, you can set up a randomly generated meeting ID, turn on a waiting room feature to approve all parties joining your chat, and lock meetings once every approved member has joined.
In November, the platform added a feature that lets a host pause a meeting to remove an uninvited participant and alert Zoom's security team, and one that lets meeting participants report intruders too. And a new At Risk Meeting Notifier tool scans public posts online and across social media for Zoom meeting links. If it finds publicly posted meeting information that suggests a meeting is at high risk of being disrupted, Zoom will notify account owners and admins via email.
For most people, this combined with the new end-to-end encryption should be more than enough security. But those from enterprises holding more sensitive data may want to do a full audit to make sure the privacy is up to par with their needs.
"It's an ongoing effort," Zoom chief product officer Oded Gal told CNET. "We're taking it very seriously."
Expanding to new services
Security issues aside, Zoom is powering forward with new features and services that expand beyond traditional video meetings. In October, the company launched the beta version of OnZoom, a platform for posting and finding quarantine-friendly virtual events ranging from concerts to cooking and fitness classes. And new Zoom Apps, coming by the end of the year, will live within the platform and let you access tools like Dropbox, Slack and Asana directly from video chats, for easier workplace collaboration.
By the end of 2020, you'll find Zoom not only on your desktop or mobile device, but your Amazon Echo Show devices, Google Nest smart displays and the Facebook Portal -- positioning the app as more of an at-home service for connecting socially than just a workplace tool, or just giving people who are still working from home another option for connecting to colleagues.
Coronavirus restrictions won't last forever. Someday, we'll be able to sit in close quarters with coworkers, family members and friends without fear of spreading a virus like this one. But it may be a while, and my guess is that Zoom is here to stay. It and other video chat platforms have enabled us to reconnect with people near and far when we didn't always do so in the past. And if we bring any new tradition forward with us into the unknowable future, we could do worse than to keep asking, "Are you free to Zoom?"