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Zoom Stays in the Fast Lane of Videoconferencing

App that has seen a boost in the past 2 years offers new features to keep users connected

How to Use Zoom to Stay Connected

Zoom became synonymous with keeping businesses running during the pandemic, and the name alone became a buzzword for all means of communicating outside of quarantine.  

But videoconferencing hasn’t lost its luster. Folks, including those 50 and far older, continue to rely on Zoom for their everyday connections when distance, time and convenience call for face-to-face interaction. 

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Other video chat options are available, including Cisco Webex,  Facebook MessengerFaceTime, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, and Skype, but many Zoomers choose the service because of its relative simplicity. Click a link and you’re attending a book club meeting, getting personal pet training from your breeder or just schmoozing with friends.

Los Angeles-based physician Steven Goldberg, 73, a self-described “sober alcoholic,” said that even today, being able “to find a Zoom Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at any hour of the day” is still going strong.

If you're unsure about Zoom — and maybe a little intimidated — we're here to help. 

What Zoom costs today

A basic Zoom membership is free, allowing you to host a meeting of up to 100 attendees for up to 40 minutes. Participants can join a Zoom meeting from their computer, smartphone or tablet.  

With a free Zoom account, people can sign back in after 40 minutes or another host can start a second meeting. But that can be a bit of a hassle. 

Pay plans that let meetings extend up to 30 hours, among other added benefits, start at $14.99 a month or $149.90 a year, per user. The Pro plan allows up to nine licensed accounts and lets you conduct meetings that run for up to 30 hours. Zoom has higher-priced plans for large businesses. 

How to get started

Zoom works on Windows PCs, Macs, smartphones and tablets, with some interface and feature distinctions among devices. You can download desktop software for Zoom on a computer or get the iOS and Android app versions in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. 

You also can participate in a Zoom call through your web browser without having any software installed on your device, albeit with more limited functionality. Zoom continues to add new features to the browser. For example, you can now schedule a one-time or recurring meeting from the web browser.  

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This story was produced in collaboration with Senior Planet, which helps people 60 and older learn technology skills to find community, reach their goals and thrive in the digital world. Senior Planet is part of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP, which teaches more than 50 free virtual programs each week on a wide range of topics, such as getting in shape, joining telemedicine appointments, listening to podcasts, making friends and saving money.  

Senior Planet recently introduced findings of a study it conducted at various times throughout the pandemic that reinforces the power of maintaining social connections for older adults using technology like Zoom. The nonprofit presented a training course called Android Essentials twice a week over Zoom to a group of low-income New York City adults 60 and older, who were each given a free tablet. The study compared the group to a similarly aged control group of people who were issued tablets but didn’t receive the Senior Planet training.    

The findings: Those who took the course were far more likely to use the tablet to expand their social connections. More than half, 52.6 percent, of the participants indicated that they connected with someone new, compared with 25.8 percent who didn’t take the course. About 38 percent of participants in the training group reported that they had a video call with someone new, compared with 22 percent of folks in the other group. 

While you don’t need an account to join a Zoom meeting, you’ll need one to host your own conference. And you may have to register to participate in webinars or other sessions. Some hosts restrict access to people who have created an authorized profile under a Zoom account.

Keep in mind that whether you use Zoom through a cellphone or on your home Wi-Fi, you'll need a decent speed.

“We've struggled with some people who don't have a powerful connection. And so they haven't had as much access,” says Paula Rochelle, 77, of San Jose, California, who learned the technology in 2020 to stay active in the groups she's involved in. That includes organizations from the activist Raging Grannies to Toastmasters. 

More recently, Rochelle added a twice-weekly band-and-weight exercise session on Zoom with women in their 70s and 80s from California, Montana, Utah, Virginia and Washington. “We call it ‘pre-hab’ exercise instead of ‘rehab’ exercise since several of us have had incidents or injuries that have put us in rehab.” 

How do I join a Zoom session?

An invitation typically arrives via email or text. Click the Join Zoom Meeting link in the body of the message. You'll be prompted to download Zoom or to launch the app if you already have it. You then just choose to join a meeting with or without video.

If the host hasn't started the meeting yet, you'll have to wait on hold. Use this time to test your computer audio and video settings, typically through the internal microphone and speaker on your system. 

As part of a test, Zoom will play an audio tone and record your voice — you will know something is off if you can't hear the tone or your voice. A video preview window lets you see how you'll look to others.

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Tip: If you plan on using video, make sure light is shining on you, rather than coming from behind.

spinner image screen grabs of audio and video dialog boxes from zoom software
On a desktop, Zoom will play a tone and record your voice as part of a mic and speakers test when you join a meeting. A video preview shows how you’ll look to others.

You can reach the platform in other ways too. If you're attending a Zoom webinar, click the link for the meeting that has likely been provided on the sponsor's website. You can also join directly from the Zoom application. Click the Meetings tab to check out any scheduled events and select Join at the appointed time.

You can join meetings by telephone using the teleconferencing number and meeting ID that the host supplies. Some also require a password, which the host will share.

"It's really easy,” says Alyce Appleman Mariam, 62, whose husband, Tom, taught her to use Zoom. “My 80-something-year-old mom uses it."

spinner image two images showing the speaker view and gallery view zoom features
Speaker view, on the left, and gallery view. The control to toggle between views is toward the top right corner of the Zoom window on laptops and desktops.
Courtesy of Zoom

How will I see other people?

Zoom has two common layouts: speaker view, in which the active speaker takes up the entire screen; or gallery view, which shows condensed photos of participants laid out in a grid pattern. On a laptop or desktop computer, the control to toggle between these views is at the top right corner of the Zoom window.

On a tablet, it's on the upper left. You may have to gently tap the screen to see it. 

You'll see all participants' live video feeds if they've enabled their camera. In the absence of video, you may see a dark rectangle with the person's name or initials or new animal avatars used to represent them.

Should I mute my microphone?

Etiquette suggests that you should mute yourself if you're not about to speak, especially if you’re with other people in the chat. Barking dogs and ringing doorbells are a distraction — though Zoom lets you filter out background noise in the settings.

To do this, press the Mute button when you’re not speaking. To raise your hand, click on More in the top right corner of the Zoom window on laptops and desktops.

"I think that the mute button is everybody’s friend,” says Marisa Giorgi, director of curriculum development at Senior Planet. 

You'll know that the mic is muted when a red slash appears on top of the microphone icon and the word Mute changes to Unmute. Remember to tap or click the icon to unmute when it's time for you to speak.

Worth noting: Hosts have the power to mute all participants. To be recognized to speak in a webinar, you may be able to tap or click the Raise Hand icon, but the host can disable this feature.

How do I host a Zoom meeting?

Make sure the app is installed and enter your account credentials. Select New Meeting to start an instant meeting. 

Check that the Video On switch is enabled to proceed with video. Click Participants to invite contacts or others via email or texts. To arrange a call for a later time, click Schedule and choose when the meeting will occur, and among other options, determine whether invitees will need a password to join.

spinner image screenshot from zoom website showing the button to schedule a new meeting

What about chatting and screen sharing?

Another way to contribute to the conversation is to type comments or questions in the chat box. You can enter comments for all to see or direct them to a single individual.

Be careful, though. While only the person you’re sending a message to will see a one-to-one comment during the meeting, the host can download the chat transcript once it’s over. Avoid snide remarks you wouldn't want to be seen later. 

“We remind people that it's only private in that moment,” says Breana Clark, who runs Zoom training sessions for Senior Planet.

If you need to collaborate or want to show something — photos, legal documents or other documents stored on your computer — you can use a Share Screen function. Note that for security reasons, hosts can prevent users from sharing their screens.

spinner image screenshot from zoom meeting showing options for screen sharing with chat and screen share buttons circled in red
The Chat and Share Screen buttons in desktop view. After you hit Share Screen, choose what you want to share.

What if I’m camera shy?

Zoom has introduced an Avatars feature for people who may be reticent about appearing on camera but still want to show off facial expressions and body language. The feature is available on Windows and macOS computers and on iOS mobile devices.

With your web camera on and video enabled, go to the meeting toolbar, select the Stop Video menu, and select Choose Virtual Background or Choose Video Filter option. Navigate to the Avatars tab and pick the virtual animal that will represent your Zoom persona. 

If you’re feeling playful, you can also add free Zoom filters, from a crown of flowers to a pirate eye patch.

spinner image illustration of a virtual zoom background highlighted
On a desktop, choose “Virtual Background” to choose an image or video as your Zoom background.

If the room behind you is messy or you just feel like transporting yourself to a new place, you can choose a virtual background instead of your own. Once again, with your camera on and video enabled, choose Stop Video | Virtual Background | Choose Virtual Background. For a quick change, pick one that comes with the app.

Is Zoom secure?

Unfortunately, just like everything these days, uninvited guests can bypass the system and crash the party. They’ve been known to intrude on a Zoom session and act inappropriately, called Zoombombing.

Hosts can reduce this likelihood by controlling screen sharing and mute settings and by enabling the “waiting room” feature in which participants are on hold until a call starts. Taking this action prevents people from entering a meeting without the host's permission. 

Other pre-meeting security options let you block users from joining from specific domains or require others to join with passcodes. The most recent Zoom, version 5.12, helps bolster security with robust encryption and the promise of increased protections against tampering.

Editor's note: This article, originally published May 27, 2020, has been revised and updated to reflect new information on various Zoom features.

Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune, and is author of Macs for Dummies and coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.

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