Google+ hands on: Five awesome features

After our preliminary look at the most promising and problematic features of Google+, fellow DT staffer Jeffrey Van Camp and I were finally able to snag some late-night invites last week and experience Google’s social network for ourselves. A few days slogging through the nitty gritty of Google+ let us discover the ins and outs of the social network. Fortunately for Google, the more time I spend with Plus, the more I’ve become convinced that Plus could quickly become the next big thing (if it hasn’t already). In fact, it’s getting increasingly difficult to keep cliché proclamations like “Facebook-killer” and “game-changer” off my lips — Google+ is genuinely fun to use, and has already started to make Facebook feel antiquated, static and dull by comparison. That’s not to say Google doesn’t have some serious work ahead to fix a variety of significant flaws with the system. But the things that are good with Plus are really good — or at least have major potential. Below, I’ll take you through my five favorite Plus features that exist so far.

For a look at the rougher edges, check out Jeff Van Camp’s take on five major flaws in Google+.

Hangout

Hangout - text chat

With this group video chat feature, Google+ has, for the first time, made social networking actually feel like a social activity. The concept is simple: It’s a chat room where, rather than typing, you chat via webcam. (Though you can turn off the microphone and just chat via typing if you prefer.) No, it’s not a new concept — Skype and Oovoo have been offering group video chat for some time. But Hangout is free, smooth, easy-to-use, and becomes even better when integrated into a more robust social network, as is the case with Plus.

Hangout works as advertised — it’s clear Google put a lot of work into it before going live with Plus. Up to 10 people are allowed into a Hangout at one time. (If anyone else wants to join, they are put on a waiting list. But I don’t have that many friends, so that problem never came up.) Whoever is talking at a particular moment is displayed large, in the center of the Hangout window, while the rest of the group is displayed in a row along the bottom. Users can share links through the text chat function, and even watch YouTube videos at the same time — one of Hangout’s niftiest features.

I didn’t really find any true glitches with Hangout itself. There was sometimes delay with some users’ video and voice, but that had more to do with their slow connections than any inherent problem with Hangout.

This feature will definitely be one of the most-used in Google+, not just by friends and family, but also as a video conferencing tool for the office.

I did have some trouble using Hangout with the Safari browser, and the necessary plug-in is not available for any Mac operating system below OS X 10.5. Overall, these are minor setbacks, however, and I’d say it’s worth joining Plus just to give Hangouts a go.

Notification bar

Notification 2

At the top of every Google-related webpage, users now have a black bar. If you haven’t yet joined Google+, this may be nothing more than a slight design change (or even a source of annoyance). But for Plus users, this black bar has become the central command station, and makes it possible to stay connected via Plus without having to remain glued to the actual webpage.

The first great function of the notification bar is, of course, the notifications. This feature, which was essentially stolen from Facebook, alerts you (by turning bright orange-red) when someone has done some Plus activity that involves you, like commenting on one of your posts or tagging you in a picture. It also shows the number of notifications, which are all viewable in a drop-down tab that shows exactly what action was taken. A click on the action shows a detailed view. From here, you can also scroll through all of the older actions.

Next, the Share tab. Click it, and a drop-down window opens. From here, you can post status updates, comments, photos, links and location info. This feature — one of my favorites of the bunch — works more or less like I’d like it to, and makes it much easier to use Google+ than Facebook, especially if you spend a lot of time on other Google sites, like Reader, Gmail, YouTube or any other Google property.

Also included on the notification bar is a tab to access your profile, Circles, account settings and — importantly — your privacy settings. In the far right corner is another tab that gives access to more general Google+ settings, help, feedback and Web history.

Basically, many of the Google+ features are available just by accessing the navigation bar, and this we see as a major hand up for Google over Facebook.

Photos

Photos - everbody firehose view

I was a little apprehensive to include this on my list just yet, since the functionality is still a bit clunky. That said, Plus’ photo-viewing function is already better than Facebook’s, and it’s likely to only get better.

Photos are accessed in a number of different ways. The first is a photo tab that appears on the control bar (located directly beneath the navigation bar, when on the Plus website). Click that, and it takes you to the fire hose page of photos — a solid wall of all the pictures posted by everybody in all of your Circles. To access an individual user’s photos, simply visit their profile page and click Photos, which shows you all the pictures and albums that person has uploaded. Of course, you can also view a user’s photos by clicking on a picture they post to their Stream.

When viewing individual photos, the photo viewer takes up the entire browser screen, with comments appearing along the right side, and additional photos listed along the bottom of the screen as thumbnails. Large right and left arrows allow you to browse through the pictures. (You can also move through pictures with the mouse scroll wheel.) Users can tag people in the photos from this view by clicking the “Tag” tab at the bottom of the photo. Google also lets users see photo metadata and location information, if it’s available, by clicking the Actions tab.

Adding photos is fairly easy — just click on “Upload new photos,” which appears in the right-hand corner of the screen when the photos tab is selected, and a popup window opens where you can drag and drop the pictures to begin the upload process. You can also add photos by posting them to your Stream. Pictures are automatically put into albums that are organized by date, or you can create a new album to place them in.

Overall, I found Plus’ photo functionality to be solid and aesthetically enjoyable. The fire hose wall can be a bit much to take, I thought, but it grew on us as I used the service more. Photos also loaded a bit slowly in the photo viewer. But aside from those few grievances, I like how Plus handles pics.

Following and friend organization (Circles)

google-plus-Circles-page

Basically, Circles are a contact organization tool, which allows you to put different people into different groups. The content you post to Plus can then be shared with one group, but not another. Unlike other grouping features on other services, like Twitter lists, for instance, using Circles is really, really easy.

When you first sign up, Google+ lets you organize all your contacts into various groups. Google has pre-created some default groups, like “Friends,” “Acquaintances,” “Following,” etc, and you’re free to use these or create your own Circles. Moving people into the circles is done with a graphical interface — just click on the person’s contact box and drag it in to the appropriate Circle. You can also highlight multiple contacts at once to speed up the process. And each contact can be added to as many Circles as you like.

Where Circles management really gets good is in the Stream. Anyone who comments on a Stream post published by someone you follow can be quickly and easily added to a Circle. Just mouse over their name, and a small popup window reveals an “Add to circles” button. Mouse over that, and all your Circles show up. Check the appropriate Circle and you’re done.

Circles does have some issues. For one, if you’ve contacted a person through multiple email addresses, that person will show up as a contact multiple times. This can get confusing, but it’s really not a deal breaker. Another problem is more long-term: If, say, you change jobs, your “Work” Circle will become outdated, and you’ll have to resort everybody. In other words, over the course of time, there will be quite a bit of Circle management that has to happen. But we doubt it will be much worse than managing friends or follows in Facebook or Twitter.

Sharing and commenting

google+ plus share sharing

Like the photo viewer, sharing still has some major faults, like posts reappearing multiple times in the Stream. But we’re going to look past those minor blemishes, and focus on the beauty beneath.

Posting to your stream and sharing with other users is simple, even though Plus gives a lot of granular control over what you share, and who you share it with.

If you want to post a photo, for example, you can do so from either the share box on your Google+ homepage, or from the notification bar (mentioned above). Before clicking “Share,” Plus allows you to decide which Circles you want to share with. You can also choose “Your Circles,” which will share the post with all your contacts; “Extended Circles,” which shares with all your contacts, and all your contacts’ contacts; or share with the entire Internet by choosing “Public.” You can also enter in email addresses of people who are not yet on Google+.

Commenting on someone else’s Stream posts is as easy as it is on Facebook. But there’s the added bonus of real-time updates: Whenever someone posts a new comment, it immediately shows up in your Stream. This is fun to watch, and makes you want to participate in the conversation, especially on posts with a lot of action.

When it’s all said and done, Google+ has a hell of a lot going for it. Yes, it still has its fair share of flaws and bugs — but it’s only a few days old, so that’s to be entirely expected. Most of all, these features and the user experience as a whole have made me want to keep using Google+. And really, that’s all that matters.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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