Alternatives to Discord

By: Shy - [04/29/2022]

The alternatives to discord is an entire discussion on its own. discord claims to only be a replacement for things like skype and TS3, but I think I've made it clear in my last article that discord replaces much more than that. I will go over a few programs and give some of their positives, but mostly talk about their negatives. Usually most people when talking about discord alternatives significantly miss the point of discord as a voice first communication system, even though the actual use case of discord IS mainly mixed media chat. I will start off with group voice chat software.

Recently there have been a few direct clones of discord such as “guilded”, fosscord, revolt. Almost everything said about discord can be applied to these. I would avoid many of these just as much if not more than discord unless you do serious research on them first. Some of these may even be open source and self hosted but being a direct clone of discord carries over a lot of the issues from combining voice focused software with chat focused software.

TeamSpeak3 is my choice for the vast majority of voice chat use. Even one on one, non group communication is done mostly via TS3. I strongly believe TS3 has the best voice activation detection out of any other voice chat software. For communities or groups, discord might as well be a bootleg version of TS3. Teamspeak3 has way more control and features that would be useful to large groups like server + client logging by default, roles, multiple levels of privileges, per channel audio codec settings (including non voice focused stereo codecs), cross server client-specified contact nicknames, priority speaker, custom server wide groups, and way more. Client features are good as well, lots of audio options, themes, and extensions. TS3 actually allows you to be on multiple servers at the same time while hearing audio from each. The mobile client is not half bad either, it is really great at filtering out on-device and external noise, sadly my ios version doesn’t allow individual volume control like the desktop client does.

Not all is good with TS3 though, first of all the TS3 installer comes with the optional “Overwolf” which is basically spyware. TS3 admins can obviously see the IP addresses of users. Updates to TS3 server software have been locking out older client versions. I believe the same version non-compatibility issue exists in the opposite direction as well. This creates forced obsolescence on older hardware that might not be supported by the new client for no realistic reason. These updates also allow new data collection “features” to be added into the once very trustworthy TS3 software. One of these “features” is the very annoying “myTeamSpeak” service that saves your UUID, settings, bookmarks, and probably sells that data. “TeamSpeak Systems GmbH” has been alleged to have a backdoor into their server software. Speaking of server software, a TS3 server is more annoying to set up than others due to its sql requirement and strange manual config changes that are required to accept the license. There is also the upcoming Teamspeak5 (aka just TeamSpeak) which is a disgusting vue.js “modern” UI that tries to make TS3 into a discord-like mixed media chat client, that has “global chat” and heavily relies on myTeamSpeak.

Mumble is without a doubt the best all round choice for small group voice communications. Mumble is fully encrypted and completely open source. Mumble shares a lot of the same features that TS3 has, but there are a few things unique to Mumble such as, built in chat TTS, game integrated positional audio, a built in overlay, ACL voice channels, and the ability to fine tune your audio compression settings. I sometimes use Mumble to talk on the aaathats3as public Mumble server. As I’ve said I prefer TS3, mostly because of the superior (imo) voice activation detection. Mumble theoretically has the best general audio quality out of any other software currently. A Mumble server is also marginally easier to set up than a TS3 server.

Mumble isn’t without its faults. Mumble is limited to only the opus voice codec (the same TS3 uses by default). Mumble is actually less configurable out of the box than TS3, a lot of audio settings that should be easily accessible are hidden behind setup “wizards”. Audio processing related things like background noise cancellation might not be as good as other voice software. The new versions of Mumble come default with these disgusting nue-linux flat icons, thank god you can change those! In fact, you can technically change any aspect of Mumble, including every issue I have listed here because Mumble is fully open source. It is possible to implement UI, audio, or any other client/server features you can think of, if you have the skill. In fact it is theorized by some that discord may have been based off of Mumble in some way. Stanislav Vishnevskiy the co-founder of discord, does have a small Mumble related project on his github that pre-dates discord. If the SBS TS3 server is ever shut down I am going to switch to self hosted Mumble.

A third option for voice chat would still be tox, specifically qTox which is still being actively maintained, but is basically MMC in the same way that early ms-skype was MMC. Tox was always intended to be an ACTUAL open source and secure alternative to ms-skype. Tox is great for person to person voice calls. Many of the past security issues with Tox have been resolved, as long as you are only communicating with people you trust. But there are still a few privacy concerns. Tox does let the person you are talking to know your IP address, it is peer2peer after all. In UDP mode Tox uses a massive amount of bandwidth since your client is part of the peer swarm that allows other people to securely find each other. Because very few people use tox, an attacker could easily gather the ips of all peers in the swarm. This can be turned off, but that means you are forced to use possibly compromised relay servers instead. Mobile clients are also a weak point, most have horrid UI and require a constant connection running if you want to receive calls while not actively using the software. I would say tox is generally fine to use, but only with close friends who you have contact with outside of tox. Tox is once again, open source, meaning projects in the future could build on this software to create something even better.

One more discord alternative to consider is just using Steam. Steam has had voice chat and group voice chat for as long as I can remember, and it was always pretty dam good. I was actually quite pissed off when steam recently updated the chat/friends UI. There wasn’t initially a way to change some of the things that I really didn’t like, but eventually some config options became available and I was able to disable some of the newly added MMC-style chat features and bring the UI back to something more functional. That update also brought text channels and voice channels to Steam group chats. A Steam group is now basically a cleaner version of a discord “server”. Although this has lead to the most disgusting nue-speak word I have ever heard, “steamscord” ughh YUCK! I think Valve is reasonably trustworthy with privacy. While it is not possible to prove they don’t sell the vast amounts of personal info steam collects, do you really think Valve needs that extra income? The CS:GO item market alone makes more money for Valve in a single day than some game studios make in a year. Valve is privately owned so they can just take losses and do things that are not 100% focused on profits. Regardless, treat Steam the same way as you do most other chat software, assume everything you send through Steam is being at the very least analyzed by Valve.

Onto non voice focused clients there is Telegram; Telegram might as well just be discord but less for nue-gamers and more for various other annoying groups who are obsessed with politics and CURRENT_TOPIC. Telegram has some of the same Venture capital investors as discord and has pretty much no way of making money besides data collection. I like Telegram because it doesn't try and claim to be something that it is not, like many other messaging programs who advertise that they are “secure” and “privacy based” when in reality they are anything but that. If you just assume everything you send via telegram is public, can get around some of the major UI annoyances, and the discord-like cultures within many groups; then Telegram is an OKAY solution if you have friends who use it. Telegram’s voice chat is decent for quick one on one calls especially if you are mobile, but I wouldn’t use it for the: sitting in voice chat with your friend all day use case. Geo positioned group chats and finding nearby people is kind of cool. I also like the mobile client file compression it does on images, I find it very appropriate for sharing my massive HD iPhone photos at an acceptable quality.

Matrix sounds good from the outside, till you find out it was created by the cooperation “Amdocs” (I shit you not, their stock name is DOX). Amdocs is allegedly linked with certain foreign intelligence agencies and has a history of possible wiretapping and mass phone metadata collection. Matrix is encrypted, but I simply don’t trust it. I wouldn’t run the server software on my own hardware unless it was sandboxed or I wrote my own implementation. Who is to say the entire matrix protocol doesn’t have some kind of back door? It may be open source, but does anyone actually know what’s going on under the hood? Can you really trust it? The only audit of matrix I’ve found is one done on their encryption system, done by a group who also audits “TOTALLY SECURE TRUST US” programs like tor. The main matrix desktop client is based on electron just like discord, so it also shares the inherent security issues that come from using it. Best case scenario with matrix is metadata leaks, worst case is the whole thing is fully backdoored. I would avoid it unless you treat it the same way as telegram/discord.

Wire, Signal, keybase, and the likes all share significant and similar issues that telegram, matrix, and discord have and shouldn’t even be considered secure, regardless of their advertising efforts. Usually when something’s main selling point is that it is privacy focused, then it is probably selling your data “anonymously” (brave browser, duckduckgo). There is one chat system that isn’t shit though, good ol’ time tested XMPP. Recently XMPP is becoming more MMC focused. Important things like off-line messaging and media sharing are becoming implemented into the xmpp protocol and clients. If you need security then ideally you should always use a self hosted XMPP server that uses SELF SIGNED certificates, and only communicate with other people who do the same. XMPP can work great for one on one and small group chats. I would still consider IRC to be the superior choice for large group random user text chat, but IRC is recently trying to become small group MMC focused as well.

IRC isn’t without downsides. IP exposure, client exploits, no default encryption, stupid ways of registering nicknames on servers, annoying and entitled users/mods, the list goes on. But there really isn’t a more perfect solution to “hop on and talk to random people” standalone chat room software than IRC. For privacy and security, you should also host your own server just like XMPP. Avoid public channel hosts such as libera chat(especially this one), freenode, rizon(to a lesser extent), and things like that. Self hosting is essential to stop on-line mega monopolies from forming. You could even host your own SIP system and just use that for voice with any client that supports it.

I don’t think many people even consider discord to be a truly viable option for structured teams. But if you absolutely need a team focused mixed media chat system like microsoft teams or slack, then Zulip is a half decent choice. Zulip is fully open source and has been around since 2012. The main client is actually a web app and the service is self hosted, but the project does offer cloud based solutions. There are a few downsides, the actual desktop client is once again based off of electron, and configuration from the ground up is somewhat complex. If using cloud hosting all of your messages will be accessible to the server operator so it is best to just self host. Luckily using a self signed certificate is possible with Zulip, so when self hosting the ability for a 3rd party to intercept your messages is very low.

This is pretty much a comprehensive list of voice/text/MMC chat systems, everything else I have either never heard of, forgot about, is shit, has their own/the exact same issues as discord (nextcloud, mattermost, jitsi, rocket chat, Gitter, Line, WeChat, Slack, Whatsapp, etc), or is more or less non functional (Ventrilo for example, doesn’t even have downloads for the server software available anymore). Here is a list of what the Free Software Foundation uses, most of which lines up with this article.