Google transformed Google Talk and Google Hangouts into a new standalone Hangouts app during today's Google I/O conference. The new app is a cross-platform service that lets users message and video call with individuals and groups. We went hands-on with the app on Android, iPad and iPhone to see if Google Talk fans have reason to be upset, or whether they'll be pleasantly surprised by the replacement.
After downloading the app, we were prompted to log into our Gmail account. We allowed Hangouts to send us push notifications, then were given the option to change our profile photo, enable circles and confirm our phone number. Hangouts then asks to access our Contacts.
The New Hangout interface lists all of your Contacts. The people in the grid on the top indicate who you talk to the most using Google Talk, and a general list of all your Contacts follows. A search bar at the top of the interface lets you search for someone by name, email, number or circle.
Your Hangouts tab displays who you've chatted with on Google Talk or conducted Google Hangouts with. By tapping on any of these, you can see the conversation log or call history. To start a new hangout, tap the + icon in the top right and enter a name. You can then choose to message or video chat by tapping the green icons at the bottom of the display. Helpfully, now you can use Hangouts to simply group message people.
Generally speaking, the interface is clean, simple and easy to navigate. Tapping on individual or group conversations quickly opened chat logs. We received messages from friends instantaneously, and we had no glitches sending text or image-based replies.
The video quality, in a word, was awful. Video of our coworkers looked grainy, fuzzy and washed-out, and audio was extremely delayed and pinched as if autotune had gone bonkers. On top of that, the video quality failed every few seconds and the display reverted back to our coworker's profile photo until it could relaunch the video. When our coworker moved, the video captured it jaggedly; it couldn't have been less seamless. This was true both over our congested office wireless network as well as over an AT&T MiFi.
Hangouts crashed numerous times during our test drive. The app would randomly just quit, calls would abruptly end and our video feeds would be replaced with our Google+ profile picture. We wonder how much of these problems have to do with everyone wanting to try this new service out, and how much are just glitches.
Overall, we were looking forward to the capabilities offered in Google Hangouts. We were impressed with the ability to group text as well as group video chat, and our messaging experience was cohesive. However, video quality turned us off. Not only was video grainy, it frequently cut out. We hope big improvements will be rolled out shortly.