Google Talk is no longer just about instant messaging. Now it includes video chat, audio chat, and domestic phone calls--all free with a Gmail account. Google's video-chat service doesn't cost a dime, is dead-simple to use, and works with Android Honeycomb tablets. But what about phones? And how good is the quality? Read on to find out.
For now, video and voice chat in Google Talk only works for the Samsung Nexus S 4G, but Google says the feature will roll out to other smartphones running version 2.3.4 of the Android OS.
Once the update is rolled out to more phones, launching video and voice calls over Google Talk will be very simple. On the Nexus S 4G, we just signed into Google Talk, tapped the camera icon next to one of our buddy's screen names, and waited for him to accept the call.
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Video chat works as part of the Google Talk Android app. Like Fring, Google keeps its user interface simple by organizing the entire app on one page (ooVoo and Tango use three- and four-page layouts, respectively). All buddies appear in a single cascading list. A camera icon appears in front of the names of friends that have enabled video chat, either on their desktop account or on their mobile phone. Tapping that icon launches a video call. You can also add friends, edit your away message, search past chats, organize your buddy list by most popular or all friends, and toggle a mobile indicator message on or off via the Android menu button.
Once a Google Talk video call is connected, your caller's video takes up the entire screen along with a smaller window of your own webcam in the lower-right corner. A faint X that sits permanently in the top-left corner can be used to end the video call at any time, and touching the screen pulls up two hovering buttons, one to mute the phone's microphone and another to launch the IM chat window.
Launching the text chat interface closes the video, but it doesn't cancel it. Instead, it pauses the video feed so that your caller sees a frozen image with a pause symbol on it. The same thing happens when you navigate away from a video call, say, to the homepage to check an incoming e-mail. The audio connection remains open, so even though video is paused you can continue your conversation while you multitask on the smartphone.
We tested Google Video Chat on a Samsung Nexus S 4G, the Lenovo ideaPad K1 Android tablet, and various notebooks and desktop PCs. The video quality was clear and mostly smooth, even over Sprint's 3G network. Calls made over 4G and Wi-Fi were a touch stronger, with less stuttering. Video streamed over Wi-Fi between the K1 and a notebook was bright with little lag in video or audio, but the lines of our face and clothing looked jagged and pixelated. Though not as clear as Fring, video streamed in Google Talk looked better than video in the Tango and ooVoo apps, which often offered blurry lines, blended colors, and messy video.
We also liked that the Google Talk application was able to display video from a 720p-enabled webcam in the 16:9 aspect ratio, even if the video itself could not be displayed at maximum resolution on the Nexus S 4G.
During our video calls, callers reported strong audio quality, and we noticed stable sound on our end, too.
While some mobile video-chat services, such as Skype and ooVoo, include the ability to call several contacts at once, Google Voice Chat does not support video calling to more than one Google Chat friend at a time. However, you can make voice-only calls to other Google Talk friends. Surprisingly, though, calls over Wi-Fi networks at home and in the office were spotty at best. Not only were there noticeable amounts of digital static on each call, our caller's voice dipped out on the first few seconds of each conversation and we heard clipped sentences. Calls worsened over both Sprint's 3G and 4G networks. There was a lengthy delay. Many times, words spoken into our Nexus S 4G never made it to a caller who used Gmail on a desktop. Users might not want to depend on voice-only calls for important conversations.
While it's currently limited to Android Honeycomb Tablets and the Nexus S 4G, Google's video chat will gain in popularity as more Android phones roll out with OS 2.3.4. As with FaceTime, users will be able to chat with Gmail or Google Talk users at a notebook or desktop. Although Fring offered better video calls over 4G and Wi-Fi, Google video was a close second, and even worked over 3G. While we wish you could call more than one user at once, Google video chat will soon be a force to be reckoned with.