Google has long tried to get into the instant messaging and communications market. For around a decade, we’ve had Google Talk, which relied on the open XMPP standard. While that product has enjoyed support by many third party instant messaging clients, it has not become the mainstream messaging alternative that, say, Facebook has become in a very short time. At yesterday’s Google IO 2013 conference, the search giant released a Google Hangouts app for iOS and Android, which is set to become Google’s core communication tool. We take a look at what you can expect on your iPhone.
Google is focused on replacing all of its current messaging apps with Hangouts as an all-round messaging, voice and video calling service. If you’ve already used Hangouts on the web, you’ll be familiar with the multiple participant video conferences that are available.
The app opens on the hangout creation page with a list of all of your contacts (asking for permission to access them the first time you run the app), headed by thumbnails of the contacts Google predicts are the people you’re most likely to want to talk with.
The hangout creation screen can be closed by tapping the X icon in the top left corner, which then takes you to the base page which is a list of all your active hangouts. Tapping the + icon in the top right corner, predictably, enables you to start a new hangout.
To create a hangout, simply type in the name of individuals or circles that you want to start calling. Then, tap the speech bubble for text chat or the camera icon to start a video call.
The video calling interface will be easy to understand if you’ve ever used Skype. There are buttons to disable audio and video, along with an option to switch between the front and rear camera. All standard fare and works as expected.
Just as with the existing desktop based video chat, the hangout displays video thumbnails of all call participants and the main video stream automatically switches to whoever is speaking. I found during testing that when the participants’ bandwidth became insufficient, their video was automatically disabled and substituted by their profile photo.
The row of call participants can easily grow wider than your iPhone’s screen, but fortunately you can swipe sideways to scroll through the list. Also, you can drag your own video preview anywhere around the screen. All of which is making good use of the limited real estate.
By tapping the chat icon in the top right corner, you can switch to text chat view, where you can send messages and photos to the group. As with all mobile video calling clients though, this can be a clunky experience as there isn’t room on the screen to do video and text at the same time.
Google Hangouts now support all sorts of effects and tools, like lower thirds text, clocks, flags, etc. All of these are visible on the iPhone client, but if you were hoping to send lower third text from your mobile device – you’re sadly out of luck.
In terms of being an Internet-based messenger, Google Hangouts is still lagging somewhat behind other competitors like Facebook, Viber, and Whatsapp, as the only message attachments that it supports are photos and (a wide range of) emoticons. Whereas the aforementioned competition supports video, voice notes and GPS location attachments. Keep in mind that this is only the first version of Google Hangouts.
The text chat interface has a useful way of indicating who is participating and what they’re doing. The small row of icons in the lower-left corner of the chat stream replaces users’ photos with pulsating dots if they’re typing. If they haven’t caught up with the latest messages, their photo is replaced with a green cross.
Google Hangouts does a good job of working with the multitasking limitations of iOS. Instant messages and incoming calls are signalled to you with push notifications, even on the lock screen. Also, when you have a video call running, you can navigate away into other parts of the app. A green bar at the top of the app indicating there’s an active call provides a quick route back into the call at all times.
If family, friends or co-workers are engaged with Google Plus, there’s no reason not to install Google Hangouts. However, if you find that most of the people in your life are using Whatsapp, Facebook or Skype all the time, you’ll use Google Hangouts very little.