Weird times call for weird measures, and that means thousands and thousands of people using a business video conferencing app to show off their cats to their friends during a nationwide quarantine.

Zoom has gotten a bunch of interest in the past few weeks as Americans scramble to figure out the right video chat app for them. Many have settled on the business-focused service because it doesn’t leave their Android-having friends out to dry like FaceTime and it can accommodate more video callers at once than Google Hangouts. 

Serious Zoom privacy concerns notwithstanding, folks are being thrust into an app they don’t know how to use. This is where we come in. There are a handful of basic, but not entirely self-explanatory Zoom features you need to know in order to get the most out of it. 

Memorize these five Zoom hacks and you can have the best video calls on your side of the Mississippi.

Change your Zoom background

I’m not 100 percent sure what the makers of Zoom had in mind when they developed the virtual background feature, but right now, it’s a crucial part of having fun with your friends during social distancing. 

You might already be aware of this by now, especially if your friends have been posting screenshots of their calls on social media, but you can liven things up by changing the Zoom background behind you. 

If you don’t want people seeing how messy your bedroom is, for example, you can just enable a virtual Zoom background that makes it look like you’re in Hawaii, or perhaps the red room from Twin Peaks, which is what my hooligan friends have been doing.

The key to success is customizing your Zoom background.
The key to success is customizing your Zoom background.

Here’s how:

  1. Click on the little arrow next to the “Stop Video” button in the lower-left 
  2. Then click “Choose Virtual Background” 
  3. Once you’re in there, click the little plus sign to add an image or, no joke, a video. 

Yes, you can make your background a looping video of your choosing, so long as you have the file on hand. 

It’s a deeply stupid and possibly annoying thing to do to your friends. That said, all of our brains are melting, and there’s something mildly comforting now about watching a 25-year-old episode of Dragon Ball Z with no audio and your friend in an office chair superimposed in front of it. 

This isn’t a hack so much as it’s a basic feature of Zoom, but I’ve had to explain it to enough people over the last couple of weeks that it belongs here anyway.

Know your Zoom hotkeys

Using your computer’s mouse or trackpad is so 20th century. Who has time to click through menus to try to make anything work? Luckily, Zoom has a bundle of built-in hotkeys you can use to do pretty much anything.

They’re obviously going to be different between Mac and Windows, but the principle is the same. 

On Mac, you can quickly shut off your camera by pressing Command+Shift+V. You know, V for Video! The same rule applies for most hotkeys: Command+Shift+M for mute, Command+Shift+S for screen share, so on and so forth.

You can also change them to whatever you want in the “Keyboard Shortcuts” section of the settings menu, for what it’s worth.

Copy that Zoom meeting link

While digging through Zoom’s preferences menu for ideas for this piece, I found a fun little box you can check to save yourself a few seconds every time you start a Zoom call for your friends. Behold, one of the first choices in the “General” area of the settings menu:

5 essential Zoom hacks to improve your virtual hangouts

That’s turned off by default, but those of us who like to take initiative and start Zoom calls for our friends will appreciate it. Instead of having to click through the invite menu to find a link to post in the group chat, turning that option on will copy it to your clipboard as soon as you start the meeting.

Think of everything you can do with the 10 seconds you just saved!

No Zoom time limits

Every video chat service has its limitations, and Zoom isn’t some exception to that rule. The biggest problem new Zoom users might face as they try to stay in touch with friends and family is the 40-minute time limit on free video calls. That just won’t work for most of us.

The good news is there are a few ways to get around this, and you don’t have to pay any money for most of them. This is purely anecdotal, but I’ve hosted multiple two to four-hour calls recently that never ended, despite the fact that I don’t pay for Zoom. The company has lifted the restriction entirely in China and for schools in the U.S., but regular folks in the states might be able to get away with long calls if they take a chance.

If you do get kicked off, the easiest thing to do is just start another call and invite all the same people back to it. If this is too much work for you, $15 gets you a month of calls with no limits. Regardless of how you choose to do it, circumventing the 40-minute limit is pretty easy.

Look nice and smooth on Zoom

5 essential Zoom hacks to improve your virtual hangouts

Our last Zoom tip is maybe the strangest. If you don’t have time or the will to moisturize before a call, though, you might be thankful for it.

In the “Video” section of the settings menu, you might notice something called “Touch Up My Appearance.” According to Zoom’s support website, this puts a soft focus over the image you output to other users to make your skin look better. Uh, neat!

Seriously, though, I assume at least one person out there will find this useful. As a person who is frequently not thrilled with the way they look over a webcam, I totally get it and will be using this feature until further notice.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of every Zoom hack, but taking advantage of everything on it is an easy and quick way to make the experience better. Nobody wants teleconferencing to be the only way to interact with their friends, but we’re here and we have to do the best with what we have.

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