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.

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

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