Discord: Everything you need to know

Discord: Everything You Need to Know
(Image credit: Discord)

Discord is one of the most popular video calling and messaging services for folks who play online PC games and who stream on platforms like Twitch. It's also used as a video conferencing app by a variety of people. Due to its ease of use and ubiquity, it's hard to find someone who doesn't use Discord.

The Discord app works with desktop and mobile platforms, combining the features of a chat lobby, a message board, a VoIP chatting system and a streaming service into one app that's not going to hog resources on your phone or PC.

Discord's popularity has only multiplied in recent years, with the app reaching over 196 million registered users by our last count. Looking to gather a group to play Final Fantasy XIV? Need to easily communicate with an entire server of Minecraft players? Want to just hang out and chat with a small group of friends? Keep reading to find out what Discord has to offer.

How do I get started with Discord?

Once you've created a Discord account, you can run it in your browser or install the Discord app. The app gives you many more customization options and is a must for anyone looking to run a server.

(Image credit: Discord)

Once you're all set up, you can start by creating a new Discord server and sending out invitation codes immediately, or by using an invitation code to join a pre-existing server. Creating a server just requires a valid server name; nothing needs to be installed.

Unfortunately, you can't browse for servers to join on the Discord app itself. But it's still quite easy to join an active community. There are many verified servers with open invitations that you can find with a quick Google search — the official PUBG server is one such example. Many popular streamers and content creators will also have public invitation codes posted on their Twitch or YouTube channels.

What makes Discord better than other VoIP services (like Skype)?

If you want just to talk with a small group of friends while playing some games, both Skype and Discord will get the job done. However, Discord stands out by giving you the option to run the app in a browser, letting you change individual people's mic levels and offering an overall lower-latency voice chat, which helps when talking to people across the globe.

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If you've installed the Discord app on your PC, you also have the option of having it run as an overlay while you're playing games. This makes it easy to tweak audio levels or type something quickly without having to alt/tab to another window.

Where can I use Discord?

Discord is available on Windows and Mac computers and can be accessed by downloading and running the Discord app, or in-browser at the official website. The browser version has some limitations, like not being able to bring up Discord's in-screen overlay while you're playing games or doing other things. Discord is also available for Android and iOS devices and includes many of the same features on mobile that you see on desktop.

You can also currently use Discord on Xbox One, though only to see what Xbox games your Discord friends are playing; you can't (yet) chat in a Discord server from your Xbox. Discord is coming to PlayStation in some form now that Sony has made a minority investment in the chat platform, but it's yet unclear how it will work or whether we can expect cross-console Discord chat in the near future.

What makes Discord good for large groups?

Managing large groups of people is arguably where Discord shines the most. When you make a Discord server, you can also make separate channels with different levels of access permissions for different users. This prevents popular servers from putting everyone in one giant message thread or voice chat channel.

(Image credit: Discord)

Several automated admin and moderation tools help keep things from going too far off the rails, even if your server doesn't have a single human moderator. Very big servers can have over 100 thousand users, with the usual culprits like PUBG and Minecraft accounting for some of the biggest groups. With groups that large, you'll need as many tools as you can get to prevent a certain flavor of the internet from showing up.

A well-managed Discord server resembles an organized message board in many ways, with locked announcement and guideline threads up top and several more specific locations for people to gather down below. The difference is that everything is flowing in real time and most channels have voice chat enabled.

What about smaller groups?

If you plan to play with just a dozen or fewer friends, Discord is still a very good tool for keeping tabs on who's available to play. Discord can notify others of what game you're playing so users don't have to check three different programs to see who's online and what everyone is doing.

Discord chat

(Image credit: Discord)

If your friends are all playing different games, you can always pop open a separate voice-chat channel while still being able to text chat with them.

How is Discord good for streamers?

If you're a Twitch or YouTube streamer with an audience of any size, Discord is a great place to manage your following. Discord gives your viewers more flexibility than a simple chat window on Twitch does. As a streamer, you can also rest easy thanks to Discord's Streamer Mode, which intelligently hides invite codes, DiscordTags and other personal info should any of it find its way on-screen during a stream.

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Streamers can also sync Discord to their YouTube or Twitch accounts and do things like set up subscriber-only channels and give subs special permissions on the server. In general, a streamer's Discord server can make for a good one-stop shop for interaction among you and your followers, whether you're live or not.

What is Discord Nitro?

For $10 a month or $100 a year, you can sign up for Discord Nitro, which functions more as a status symbol and a tip jar than as an upgraded version of the app. While you get some functional perks, like bigger image-upload caps (up to 100MB) and higher-quality screen sharing, the rest of the benefits are purely cosmetic. The Discord team has promised not to lock up currently free features behind Nitro in the future.

Among the cosmetic perks are animated avatars and animated emojis in chat. You can also customize the DiscordTag number that comes after your name, and you get a special badge to display your support.

What are Discord bots?

Many of the best community- and server-management tools available for Discord don't come with the app, but are installed separately as third-party programs. These are called bots, and Discord has a listing of officially endorsed bots that give server owners comprehensive moderation tools and integration with other apps, like Twitch or YouTube.

You can also find unofficial bots that do a lot more, like let you call real phone numbers, add server stat readouts or display player career stats for games like Fortnite. Not all of these bots are free to install or free to use, and there's no guarantee that they'll stay updated with the latest version of Discord. However, some of them are widely popular and offer very specific fun or useful extras to help spice up your server.

Alex Wawro
Senior Editor Computing

Alex Wawro is a lifelong tech and games enthusiast with more than a decade of experience covering both for outlets like Game Developer, Black Hat, and PC World magazine. A lifelong PC builder, he currently serves as a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice.