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Hands-on: Google Allo

Say Allo! Google’s latest messaging app is here, and it's smarter than iMessage

The AI we want isn’t entirely here yet with Google Assistant, but it’s getting awfully close.

Allo, Google’s fancy new messaging app debuting its artificially-intelligent Assistant, is finally available for download for Android and iOS phones.

Allo is one of six messaging apps from the search giant. It’s hard to understand why it wants to start over with messaging, yet again, when it has a plethora of ways for people to have a conversation, like Hangouts and Google Messenger.

Still, the competition is heating up with iMessage on iOS 10, Facebook Messenger’s growing number of chat bots, and WhatsApp’s billion users. Google’s solution is focused around Assistant: AI that’s core to the company’s strategy for its upcoming products.

We’ve played around with Allo for a few days, and while the app works flawlessly with zero hitches, there are a few glaring omissions (like third-party integrations) that leave us wondering why Google didn’t push the launch date to its October 4 event, where we’ll see the debut of the first smartphone “made by Google.” It’s rumored to be the date the company will also launch Google Home, an Amazon Echo-like device that offers voice access to Assistant in your house.

With the official launch there is only one new feature that hasn’t been mentioned previously — SMS Relay. Before we dive into SMS Relay and Google Assistant, let’s dive into Allo, what it is, and what you can do using it.

What is Allo?

Allo is a messaging app, plain and simple. It’s akin to WhatsApp, in that you sign in with a phone number. Your Google account is synced afterward so that Assistant can be helpful not just on your mobile device, but on other services like the upcoming Google Home, and the rumored Pixel smartphones.

“Allo is our second play in the consumer space that, just like Duo, [uses] your phone number as the identity, [and] your phone as the graph, which is obviously filled with people, friends, and family you’re most likely to connect with,” Amit Fulay, product manager for Allo, told Digital Trends.

The primary focus for the team behind Allo and Duo’s was to nail the fundamentals — such as the speed, latency, and overall reliability. Machine learning was later added in to make Allo more useful and fresh.

“Communications, and especially messaging, happens to be the prime use case for a mobile user,” Fulay said. “We believe messaging is still in some ways still in its infancy. Even though there are a lot of applications, a lot of competition, I think it’s just the beginning of all the iterations that can be done in messaging.”

Allo’s main screen is minimal, featuring an all-white background that can be a little bright at night. There is a search function at the top that acts similarly to the one on Google Messenger, the SMS/MMS app. You can search for messages in your chats, except for messages sent and received in Incognito chats. A slide out bar gives you options to check your profile, blocked contacts, settings, get help or send feedback.

When you first set it up, you’ll be asked to verify your phone number. Once that’s complete, you can add a profile picture and a name. You can start messaging people by tapping the floating action button at the bottom right. Here, you can either start a group chat (up to 256 people), a one-to-one chat, or an Incognito chat.

Once Allo’s smart replies begin adapting to the way you talk, it feels efficient to use them.

In regular chats, you can go to your friend’s profile to see all the images you have shared between each other. Tap the call button and you’ll be taken to a contacts screen, where you can choose how you want to call depending on what apps you have installed, such as Duo, Facebook messenger’s video call, WhatsApp call, and more. There is no native Duo integration.

Unfortunately, in its current iteration, your messages are stored on one device only. If you try to install Allo on a new device, like a tablet, you will receive a verification text and will have to add a new profile picture. Your conversations will not sync. The phone you originally installed Allo on will also un-register your account, meaning you’ll have to set it up again. Thankfully, conversations will still be there.

Incognito chats

Incognito chats follow the same idea as Google Chrome’s Incognito Mode — it creates a new chat thread with the familiar spy icon in the background. All messages here are end-to-end encrypted, meaning Google, the FBI, or hackers, can’t read them. You can set messages to expire in five seconds, 30 seconds, a day, a week, or never. Notifications from Incognito chats do not show the content of the message.

Unfortunately, you can’t call on the Google Assistant while in this mode or use any smart features, which is why the app isn’t end-to-end encrypted by default.

Smart Reply

One of the best features Allo has to offer is Smart Reply, which was originally introduced in Google’s Inbox by Gmail app. It reads incoming messages and pictures to offer contextual quick responses, so you don’t have to type. So for example, if a friend sends a picture of a dog, Smart Reply will offer up responses akin to “aww,” or “cute!”

But the best part is how the app learns how you type the more you use it. As such, your Smart Reply options will start turning into phrases and sentences you typically say. You can respond to messages with smart replies directly from notifications, sometimes saving you the step of jumping into the app.

It would have been neat to still be able to use Direct Reply, a feature introduced in Android 7.0 Nougat. That would let you directly respond to people within the notification with whatever you want, not just with smart replies. Fulay says an implementation is in the works.

Once Allo’s smart replies begin adapting to the way you talk, it doesn’t feel “fake” using them. It’s efficient. They save an extra step of having to type the very words you were about to say anyway.

Stickers, scribbles, and ‘Whisper or Shout’

Google commissioned several artists to create stickers exclusively for Allo — getting them installed on your app is similar to how stickers are offered via Facebook Messenger. The company says it’s exploring ideas on whether or not it should open stickers up to third parties with a sticker store. To access them, tap the plus sign in the text box.

It’s hard to understand why Google wants to start over with messaging.

Stickers and messages aren’t the only thing you can send. Once you press the “plus” sign, you’re able to send your location, as well as take and send photos and videos from the app You can also choose from content in your photo gallery.

Once you choose a photo, you can add in your own touches thanks to a scribble feature. There’s the choice of a highlighter with various color options, and text. This is only available on Android, but it’s coming to iOS soon.

If you want to emphasize or de-emphasize your messages, Google has added a playful “Whisper or Shout” function that lets you enlarge your words and emojis, or make them smaller. To do this, you have to press and hold the send button and slide it up or down.

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