Get in Touch With Hangouts for Google+

For the past few years, Google has made it a mission to build their own ecosystem in iOS. All of their core services, including Google Search, Google Now, Gmail and Google Maps, are readily available to iOS users. Better yet, each app is able to communicate with one another (e.g. tapping a link in Gmail will open the web page in Chrome), which is a great workaround for Apple’s staunchness for disallowing third-party apps to be used as a default app (a change I’m hoping to see in iOS 7).

During the keynote address at Google I/O a few weeks prior, Google introduced their new unified communications service, dubbed Hangouts. Before the announcement, Google offered multiple communications services, including Google Talk, Google Voice and Google+ Messenger, but their hope is that Hangouts will bring them into the fold of popular messaging services such as WhatsApp, iMessage and Facebook Messenger. Hit the jump to find out if Hangouts is indeed up to such a momentous task.

Like the article? You should subscribe and follow us on twitter.

Google+ Required

As this review’s title might suggest, you’ll need a Google+ account in order to use Hangouts. I have no issue with this requirement since I’m a fairly active Google+ user, but I know there are many that are not, nor do they care to become one. Google is steadfast in their desire to make Google+ a popular social network, and continue to make unpopular decisions (killing off Google Reader, for instance) in hopes of reaching their goal. So, if you’re dead set against join Google+, Hangouts won’t be for you.

Having and using a Google+ account is the only barrier to entry in Hangouts.

Having and using a Google+ account is the only barrier to entry in Hangouts.

Starting a Hangout

After signing in with your Google+ account, you can begin a Hangout by tapping the + icon in the upper-right corner. Based on your history with talking to friends and contacts via Google+ Messenger and Gmail, Hangouts will predict six individuals that you’re most likely to contact. Below those individuals is a list of remaining friends/contacts from which to choose, or you can enter a name, email, phone number and/or Google+ circle in the text box at the very top. When you’ve selected those people with whom you wish to chat, tap either the chat icon or video icon at the bottom.

Hangouts’ predictions on my top six potential contacts was a bit hit or miss.

Hangouts

Hangouts, which are the actual messaging conversations, are set up in a familiar fashion in comparison to other messaging apps. You can enter messages via a text box at the bottom, or add a photo by tapping the camera icon. Tapping the video icon in the upper right will initiate a video call. The settings menu, which is accessed by tapping the icon to the left of the video icon, offers a host of options including adding more people to the Hangout, seeing a list of current individuals involved and even renaming the Hangout.

Hangouts doesn’t automatically jump to new messages, but indicates that new messages are available.

The design of Hangouts is very minimal, which is on par with Google’s current design scheme, and I’m rather fond of the chat bubble animation that occurs each time a new message is posted. Hangouts informs you when someone is currently typing with the use of three animated green dots, which at times have a tendency to display when individuals aren’t actually typing. A watermark comprised of a user’s semi-transparent, shrunken avatar informs you of where they’ve left off in the conversation, which is a fantastic feature for group Hangouts.

If the same person submits multiple messages in a row, they're all shown within the same chat bubble.

If the same person submits multiple messages in a row, they’re all shown within the same chat bubble.

One feature that’s sorely needed in iMessage is the ability to leave a conversation, which is available in Hangouts. However, this ability comes with the caveat that once you leave you can only return if you’re invited. If you just need a break from a conversation, there’s is an option to turn off notifications within a Hangout’s settings. A snooze notifications for all Hangouts, which will turn off notifications for a set amount of time, is available in the app’s master settings. I’d love to see this option implemented in individual Hangouts, though.

Once you leave a Hangout, you'd better hope someone's nice enough to let you return.

Once you leave a Hangout, you’d better hope someone’s nice enough to let you return.

As you converse in a Hangout the app will keep a history of the conversation, allowing you to go back and reread all of your chats. While more indicative of the service than this app, Hangouts does a good job of making itself accessible across multiple platforms, meaning you can start a conversation on the Google+ website and instantly jump back in when you transfer to your iPhone. However, Facebook Messenger not only matches this ability, it offers more platform options for users (including a Windows desktop app).

Video Calls

Before the release of Hangouts, the term was synonymous with video calls on Google+. While video calls can be a one-on-one affair, you can add up to ten people in a single video call. Group video calls are available on Skype, but you’ll pay for the privilege. I found video calls to be quite serviceable, but the video was at a slightly lower quality than Facetime.

You can turn off your camera and have an audio only conversation.

You can turn off your camera and have an audio only conversation.

Showing Its Youth

While I enjoy many aspects of Hangouts, the app is young and has a number of issues that Google needs to address. For starters, links aren’t active when they’ve been submitted via the app — but are when entered from the Google+ website — and you can’t select and copy individual lines of text. In my experience, the app hardly remembered where I left off in a conversation when I returned at a later time, usually taking me to an earlier point within the conversation that I already read. More often than not, I had to manually refresh the app to see new messages from other participants.

It's easy to remember the short links, but it's incredibly tedious to deal with non-active links that are much longer.

It’s easy to remember the short links, but it’s incredibly tedious to deal with non-active links that are much longer.

I have Hangouts installed on both my iPhone and iPad, and notification badges do not display for either. Colleagues of mine informed me that badges do display for them, but do not disappear when they open the app. This could be an issue with a Hangouts feature that allows users to get notifications a single time and removes them from other devices when an alert is seen. Along the same lines, Notification Center on both my devices are constantly filled with Hangouts notifications and can only be removed manually.

I found it nearly impossible at times to know if I'd missed anything in a Hangout.

I found it nearly impossible at times to know if I’d missed anything in a Hangout.

While not bugs, there are a few flaws that I’d like to see addressed in future updates. First, the text box for typing a message only fits two lines of text, which is very annoying when typing a longer message. Second, when you’re in the app a notification sound won’t chime when someone else posts a new message, making it difficult to participate in a chat while multi-tasking. Finally, the app lacks a visual cue when scrolling through a conversation, such a scrollbar, which in turn makes it problematic to know where you’re at in the Hangout.

Entering multiple lines of text in a Google+ Hangout expands the text box, which would be very handy in this app.

Entering multiple lines of text in a Google+ Hangout expands the text box, which would be very handy in this app.

The Bottom Line

While Hangouts will not become my de facto means of communicating with friends and family, the landscape of chat services is so fragmented that no app can accomplish such a feat. With my close friends and family, I’ll nearly always stick with iMessage/texting and/or Facebook because that’s what they’re used to and understand. I also make use of direct messages in Twitter because it’s my favorite social network.

Whether or not Hangouts works for you doesn’t necessarily depend on the quality of the app, which is pretty good for it’s initial release, as much as it depends on if you know anyone that also wishes to use the service. Luckily, I know some members of the AppStorm crew that have made it a place for us to chat about a number of topics, granting me the opportunity to experience whatever Google has planned for Hangouts’ future.


Summary

Communicate with your Google+ friends via video and/or messaging.

7