Getting Chummy With Hangouts from Google

This week, Google made a ton of announcements about new software products, but the one that we spent the most time talking about here at iPad.AppStorm is Google Hangouts. This is the product that makes Google Plus worth having for many of us. We see it as kind of a big deal.

When the opportunity came to review the new Hangouts app for iPad, I jumped at it. I don’t need another way to communicate — in fact, I think we all communicate with each other way too much — but I wanted to give it a shot and see what all the hoopla was about. I’m always looking for a better way to communicate. Let’s find out if Google Hangouts is, in fact, a better way to chat with friends.

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Getting Smart

There’s a truckload of features that simply no other messaging platform has right now in Google Hangouts. The first question I asked was “Why is this better for me than iMessage?” There’s a lot of answers to that question, but let’s start with the obvious: everybody can use this on any platform. Google has got cross-platform down with almost all of their core products now, and that’s great.

Just chilling.

Just chilling.

But otherwise, Hangouts supports a lot of things that iMessage simply don’t. Group chat isn’t new to iMessage, but it’s not that well implemented there. Here, you can choose to group video chat. It’s easy to leave a conversation or turn off notifications for a conversation so you’re not bothered by it. It’s also really easy to start one, and all you need to get going is Google Plus. (Yes, a Google Plus account is required to use Hangouts. Frankly, deal with it.)

The only other cross-platform chat communicator with this many features is Skype, but even with Skype, you still have to pay for group video chat. And not everybody uses Skype, while almost everybody I personally know uses Google.

Adding an image  is really easy, as is starting up a video call.

Adding an image is really easy, as is starting up a video call.

The group chat is really the magic of Google Hangouts. You can chat with people on an individual basis too, of course, but it’s simply not as cool or meaningful. In fact, why should I chat with somebody on Google Hangouts? In all honesty, if people are really important to me, they probably have my phone number and I have theirs. We can text or FaceTime (if they use Apple products as well), and that might be faster and more reasonable for most people.

Getting iPad Specific

We’ve covered the basics: I love it for group chat, but I’m not sure I personally see the point in using it to chat with people on a one-on-one level. But what makes the iPad app itself worth getting? Why bother taking up the space on your device with yet another app?

Simply put? It’s extremely functional and highly usable on the iPad (and iPhone as well); in fact, I’d argue the experience is better on iPad than it is on a desktop with Chrome. For the most part, the interface is easy to understand, the font is readable, and it seamlessly syncs with whatever other devices you’re working with.

You can check out people's Google Plus profiles from within the app and then add them to your Circles from there.

You can check out people’s Google Plus profiles from within the app and then add them to your Circles from there.

And I mean seamlessly. I walked my dog earlier and was chatting on my iPhone. When I got in the house, I continued the chat on my iPad mini whilst pouring a cup of coffee, and when I got back to my iMac, everything was there and conversations were perfectly synced, down to the millisecond. That would never happen with iMessage.

Even starting a Hangout is very Google-esque in design: Flat, mostly monochrome and Android-like.

Even starting a Hangout is very Google-esque in design: Flat, mostly monochrome and Android-like.

The design is undoubtedly Google. Chrome is everywhere. The font is sans serif. It carries all the hallmark UI touches that people are used to and expect from Google, especially after the Google Plus app. My sole complaint is that some people are going to find the font way too small. My parents would never want to make this their sole way of communicating with me, for instance, just because they’d never be able to read this without putting on their glasses.

The Flaws

There’s a couple huge flaws with the service and the app though, in my opinion. The first is quite simple: you can’t leave a conversation and join it again later without an invite. You can see how this could get annoying. We have a group chat for writers here at iPad.AppStorm, and if I decide I want to take a couple days away from work (yeah, right), I should be able to leave the conversation and rejoin again later. But I can’t.

There's a handy ability to archive conversations as well.

There’s a handy ability to archive conversations as well.

This leads to the other problem. If I want to simply avoid notifications, fine, I can turn off notifications. That’s done right within the conversation settings. However, within the global app settings, I can choose to snooze notifications for a set period of time. I can’t snooze individual threads though; they’re either pushing notifications to me or they’re not.

The only thing this really needs is more granular notification settings.

The only thing this really needs is more granular notification settings.

Granted, despite these flaws, the ability to turn off notifications or leave chats or even snooze the app’s constant pocket buzzing for an hour two are still leagues ahead of everybody else’s chat offerings. So take this with a grain of salt. But if you ask me, if you’re going to attempt something a little new or innovative, make sure it’s perfect.

The Bugs

Speaking of imperfect, the app does have a couple bugs that we’re sure Google must be ironing out double-time. One that was reported by a colleague (which I can’t seem to duplicate) is that rotating the iPad to landscape from portrait, or vice versa, causes you to lose your place in the thread. Again, I couldn’t make this happen on my iPad mini, but if you’re using a different iPad model, you may be affected.

Notifications are a different issues. Sometimes I got a notification banner, and sometimes I didn’t. Some people are getting badge icons and others are not. My badge icon was still active even when I had notifications off (but banners weren’t coming through). These are very minor things, but the app does lack the unmistakeable Google polish most of us are used to. With Google being Google, we’re sure these things will be fixed quickly in a future update, and I don’t think it’s necessarily worth passing up on the app because of a couple tiny glitches.

The Final Word

For group communication, Google Hangouts is far and away the best option I’ve experienced. It’s not perfect (what is?), but it has perfect cross-platform performance, the app is functional and it’s mostly beautiful.

I don’t have Google Plus on any of my devices because I hardly use it. But Google Hangouts instantly earned a place on them and I can’t see myself getting rid of it any time soon. I don’t see the need to communicate with people as constantly as we do, but I think if you need to reach somebody or want to have a quick group meeting with friends or colleagues, you could choose a far worse way to do so than Google Hangouts.


Summary

Google Hangouts has a couple minor bugs and I'm not sure I see what makes it better than a quick text for one-on-one communication, but this is app is already the king of group chats and is really easy to use. Very recommended.

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