Hangouts (for Android) review

Hangouts is a simple, comprehensive way to communicate with your friends over Google's services, but it lacks some traditional chat features and is a bit intrusive.
Photo of Hangouts (for Android)

As of Android 4.3, Google Talk is dead on Google’s mobile platform. Hangouts (free) is the new king and it’s a solid chatting app that ties you to all your Google-based conversations and lets you move seamlessly among Google accounts. It also sorta-kinda brings feature parity to Apple’s Face Time feature by letting you take any text conversation into a video chat, but is a bit pushier than I like and lacks some traditional chat features.

Chatting in Columns
Hangouts uses a two column view that is very mobile friendly, with a clean style in the vein of Google+ or Google Keep. You can easily slide between existing conversations in the left column, to the actual conversations on the right. If this is your first time using Hangouts, or you’re starting a new chat, you’ll see a page displaying the people you talk to the most.

Hangouts doesn’t use the traditional model of a buddy list, which bothered me. Instead, Hangouts shows you the contacts on your device that have associated Google accounts and a search bar. The emphasis seems to be less on browsing who’s online to chat, and more already knowing who you’ll be contacting. There also isn’t a way to set a status; either you’ll answer or you won’t.

Hangouts doesn’t support other chat services, so you won’t be able to message someone on AIM through the Hangouts app. But you can message anyone with a Google account (which is basically everyone) and your message will appear on your recipient’s Android device, in Gmail, on Google+, or in their chat client if it can connect to Google. I did notice that the Windows chat client Trillian did not include the responses I wrote from the Hangouts app, but otherwise Hangouts kept up with the conversation regardless of where the messages were sent.

Google also throws down the gauntlet at Apple with its emojis, which are numerous, colorful, and delightfully cartoonish though not quite as strange and wonderful as iOS emojis. Note that while you can send images from the Hangouts app, you need to have a Google+ account to do so.

Going Video
Any chat in Hangouts can be converted to a video chat by tapping the video camera icon in the upper right-hand corner. As with a text chat, the person you’re calling will see the invite on their phone or computer, and can respond from either.

In my testing, I used an AT&T’s 4G Samsung Galaxy S III  to video chat with a Nexus 7 tablet connected via Wi-Fi. While the video wasn’t always crystal clear, it looked good enough and there was surprisingly little lag. When I used just the Wi-Fi connected tablet and a computer, the video was much clearer and slightly more responsive.

I particularly liked that Hangouts lets you toggle between text and video once you’ve started a video chat and can also toggle between front and rear-facing cameras on your device. Note that you’re limited to person-to-person video calls, unless you have a Google+ account which supports up to 10 people.

Automatically Opted-In

Presumably to compete with SMS, Google has automatically enabled chat notifications in Hangouts. I hated it when Google used this tactic with the Google Talk app and I still hate it with Hangouts. It feels intrusive and for someone who sends a lot of IMs in a day, and if you use encrypted chats then expect piles of garbage text all over the place (see the slideshow for what most of my chats look like).

If you don’t want to see constant notifications, then you’ll have to enter the Hangout Settings menu and deactivate them or “snooze” notifications for a particular chat for a set period of time. However, the app will still update your chat regardless of whether the app is running or not.

Limited Choices
Because the Hangouts app is replacing Google Talk, you don’t have a lot of choice about whether or not you’ll be using it—or at least be made aware of it. Google seems bent on convincing users that their chat system is as useful as SMS, but Apple has an edge here because their iMessages system is integrated directly into the SMS app. If Google Voice is ever integrated into Hangouts, then I would have no problems with the way Hangouts works—in fact, I’d welcome it.

Google’s pushy stance with Hangouts is unfortunate because Hangouts is a very good chat app. The design is very pleasing, and while it’s not as intuitive as I’d like it’s easy enough to pick up. The close integration with other Google services, and the ubiquity of said services, means that you really can stay connected just about wherever you are. And there’s video to boot.

Hangouts is a simple, comprehensive way to communicate with your friends over Google's services, but it lacks some traditional chat features and is a bit intrusive.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc