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Google Hangouts app review: A step forward for video chat… with some drawbacks

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When you think video conferencing, you probably associate it with one of two services: Skype or FaceTime. Both are popular options for face-to-face chats over long distances and both have the ability to be used as a verb. While Google Hangouts doesn’t quite pass the verb test (“Let’s Hangouts!”), it is definitely a solid option when it comes to video communication. The service was once housed inside Google+ and though it’s still keeps ties with the social networking service, Hangouts has broken out into its own app that will eventually be Google’s all-in-one communication tool. Eventually is, unfortunately, not today.

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As it stands, Hangouts is Google’s offering for a messaging and video chat service between Google+ users. You do have to have a Google+ account to use Hangouts, which may turn some people off, but it’s not particularly difficult to make one nor will it cost you anything. The Hangouts app allows you to carry on a conversation with up to 10 other users, either from your address book or from your Google+ Circles. The selection screen for picking the people to chat with is a little confusing; some users are listed with photos in boxes on the top of the screen and the rest of your contacts are in list form at the bottom. The best assumption we can make is the ones in boxes are your recent or most common chat partners, but we’re really not sure. There is a search feature – of course there is, this is Google after all – so if all else fails you can just type in your intended contact, but it seems like the contact list could use some fixing.

Once you are in a chat, you can converse with your Hangout partners via text messages (complete with emojis), photos, or video chat. The texts come scrolling in in real time and Hangouts keeps an archive of your conversations so you can go back and forth over a long period of time. Of course, the real appeal here is the video chat. Google Hangouts also gives you the option to have an on-camera conversation with up to 10 people at the same time, and it lets it happen across multiple platforms. Android, iOS, and desktop users can all be in the same video conference. When a person talks in the video chat, their video is brought to attention on screen, sending the others in the call down to a smaller box until they speak again. It’s a cool feature, though it can get a little messy with too many voices. Still, for the most part it works great and keeps your attention on the person talking. The quality of the call will vary based on your connection, but on our Wi-Fi connection it worked well.

Android, iOS, and desktop users can all be in the same video conference.

The text side of the equation does still live a bit to be desired, though. It doesn’t really feel like a fully functioning instant messaging client in the way that Kik or Imo.im does. There is no ability to set statuses or make people aware that you’re away from keyboard and there’s no indication in your address book of who is available to chat. People who are online in some form – they could be in a call, set to away or busy, or actually online and available – don’t have their photo faded like those that are definitely offline, but that’s the only indication that they may be around and ready.  

When you get into a Hangout, be it video or text, the Google Hangouts experience is great. But it does feel like the rest of this app could be better. The contacts list is an unexplainable mess and there seems to be features missing that really differentiate Hangouts as a standalone from the chat features in Google+ itself. While Google has made it clear that it intends to bring SMS functionality and integrate Google Voice into Hangouts, it’s not there yet. Once those features find their way into Hangouts, it will likely be a formidable choice for all forms of communication, especially given its unique cross platform capabilities that buck the operating system problem. Until then, it’ll continue to feel like Hangouts left home a little prematurely.