Google Hangouts - Finally Usable?

Category: Mobile , Telephony

Has Google Hangouts worked out the annoying kinks, and removed the hoops through which users formerly had to jump to enjoy free phone calls, video chat and messaging? Hangouts promises to be the "one app for all your conversations" on desktop or mobile devices. So are we there yet? Read on...

Google Hangouts: Free Calls and More

Hangouts has had a strange history. It originated as a video chat feature on Google+, the social network that never quite succeeded at giving Facebook a run for its money. Since then, it's evolved into a cross-platform tool for instant messaging, SMS texting, video chat and voice calling.

I've never been a big fan of messaging or video chat. Email is my tool of choice for communicating. But who doesn't like free phone calls? The problem in the past has been the confusing relationship between Google+, Hangouts, Google Voice, Google Chat, and Google Talk.

Getting set up to make a phone call was difficult; it involved installing a browser plugin and clicking some obscure link on your Gmail window. And for many people, it either didn't work reliably, or didn't work at all. The good news is that with the latest version of Google Hangouts on both desktop and mobile, most of those problems are history.

Google Hangouts - Finally Usable?

For desktop messaging, Hangouts now has its very own website, https://hangouts.google.com. You need to be logged in to a Google account, but you don’t need a Google Voice number, or any phone number, to start video calls, send and receive text messages, or place voice calls for free within the USA and Canada. International calls at bargain rates are also available.

If you do happen to be a fan of video chat, Hangouts is a great choice. Using a microphone and webcam, you can start a hangout and connect with one friend, or invite up to 10 people to join in a group video chat. You can even share your screen, which is handy for demonstrations, or tech support.

If you want to share with a bigger audience, Hangouts on Air lets you broadcast live events to a global audience. These public events can take the form of a webinar, a concert, a church service, a business presentation or just some guy ranting about whatever is on his mind. You can view the Hangouts on Air happening now, or start your own.

Hangouts for Mobile Users

Google rolled out the Android version of Hangouts 4.0, its integrated messaging app, on August 10, 2015. So far, 1.3 million users have rated the new Hangouts, and reviews are mixed – averaging 3.9 out of 5 stars. That’s a full star better than the average was for the last version.

Hangouts 4.0 is faster, simpler, and prettier, according to Google. Users’ opinions vary, with some saying they’ve reverted back to older versions. Superficially, at least, the contacts list search function works better, and it’s even possible to start a new Hangout with a spoken command.

Some of the biggest flaws in the mobile version of Hangouts have been fixed, too. Before v4.0, for example, you could not attach a photo to a message you’d already started. The “attach” icon changed to “send” as soon as you started typing. Now, there’s a row of shortcut buttons available at all times. Snap a photo, attach a photo or emoji, share your location, and “send” are all there at once.

One thing that still needs fixing is the need to download the Hangouts Dialer app to make voice calls through Hangouts. This should be integrated into Hangouts for it to be considered a truly unified messaging app. The upside is that it allows you to call any phone number (landline or mobile) from Hangouts without burning up the minutes in your cell plan. And as in the desktop version, most calls to (and within) the US and Canada are free.

Outbound Caller ID is new, too, although it’s not enabled by default. In previous versions of Hangouts, only a Google Voice number could be sent as your Caller-ID; if you didn’t have a GV number your recipients saw “UNKNOWN CALLER” on their screens. Now you can set your phone’s number as the Caller-ID.

It's worth noting that there's a Hangouts for iOS app, which is highly rated by iPhone and iPad users. Unlike its Android cousin, no extra app is required to send make voice calls. Hangouts are synced automatically across devices, so you can start a Hangout on your iOS device and continue on another device, like your computer.

Hangouts has made progress, both at fixing the early annoyances, and at eliminating much of the confusion of what it's trying to be. So is it ready for prime time, as a cross-platform unified messaging tool? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Google Hangouts - Finally Usable?"

Posted by:

Doug
31 Aug 2015

We use hangouts at work and it's great. I love that it's all in the browser versus having to have a Skype install, for example. It means that I can now chat w/ my wife at her office even though she can't install software.

Also, the seamless passing between my iPad and Laptop means that when I'm super busy on my PC (or giving a presentation), I can still maintain chat on my iPad at the same time.

I'm sure there's many chat programs that are similar, but this works really well for me!


Posted by:

Craig Beard
31 Aug 2015

I'm not sure what's going on. When I click the link above to go to Hangouts, I momentarily see a page that looks like a nice, simple home page. But before I can use it, my browser refreshes and takes me to a static page with no live links.


Posted by:

Mike
31 Aug 2015

Very interesting Bob. and very timely. I was just thinking about this. I am going to reread the column. Thanks again. Mike


Posted by:

Mike Cunningham
31 Aug 2015

Thanks Bob for this very timely message.


Posted by:

jmke
31 Aug 2015

Thanks for explaining these Hangout features to us. A friend and I who study together may find using Hangouts video chat will make things easier and more fun!


Posted by:

BaliRob
31 Aug 2015

My immediate reaction was "What about the rest of us?" Google gives the impression as being global but we often get neglected.

EDITOR'S NOTE: All of the features of Hangouts are available globally. Even those outside North America can place calls to people in the USA & Canada. Voice calls to other countries do require per minute charges. Video calling is free globally.


Posted by:

John Silberman
31 Aug 2015

I still think a lot of bloat comes with Hangouts, especially in the Android version. I do miss the days when Google permitted third party apps (such as Talkatone) to interact with Google Voice a make your Android a wifi phone.


Posted by:

gtodon
31 Aug 2015

Regarding BaliRob's post saying that Hangouts was not available globally, Bob responded that "all of the features of Hangouts are available globally." I live in Mexico, and although Hangouts is available here, the Hangouts Dialer is not. I tried to download it but was told it was "not available in your country."


Posted by:

Paul H
08 Sep 2015

I use the Viber app and What's App to call Israel for free. My friend in Israel has to have the app on his cell phone.


Posted by:

InLionSk8r
12 Sep 2015

Back when Apple released the iPad Mini with combo WiFi/LTE, my wife and I made the most of the opportunity to retire our smaller iPhones and dump their expensive monthly charges. (We were paying a fortune for shared minutes that we rarely used - most just kept rolling over until they expired after a year.) Over time, we figured that we'd paid for, accumulated (and lost) thousands of unused minutes, so we decided we needed a less costly phone solution. We each got a Google phone number to use with Google Voice and a third party App. But as John Silberman pointed out above, Google cut off support to those. That basically left Hangouts as the only game in town.

The current iOS version of Hangouts is their best-to-date, but isn't nearly as good as our previous App alternatives were. It often dumps directly into voicemail instead of ringing through - even when excellent WiFi and LTE are available. (Yes, we've got Notifications configured correctly.) There's only one ringtone and even with volume at maximum, it's only loud enough to hear when in a fairly quiet environment. We've found that generally call quality is good and volume of voices is usually fairly good too, (with or without using a bluetooth earpiece)... even in a moving vehicle. Unfortunately, the App tries to be too many things to too many people, so the interface is less intuitive than it could be. With so many small icons and word-links, it's easy to tap the wrong thing and get an unexpected result. The text messaging is fine, but we prefer iMessage. Video calls are OK too, but FaceTime usually has higher quality video and better lip-sync.

A major bug in the current iOS version: If someone calls (regular voice call), you don't answer it and they don't leave a voicemail, there will be no record of the call. Really? My wife complained that she couldn't pick up a call fast enough (another problem being too few rings before dumping into voicemail) and then she couldn't even find out who had just called! At first I thought maybe she wasn't looking in the right place, but quickly found out that she was absolutely right. OK... so it's a work in-progress. Even with our data-only plan, we rarely use 25% of our 3 Gb each (and of course no minutes.. ever.) Since our monthly bill went from $145 to $65, we're not complaining.


Posted by:

BaliRob
17 Jun 2016

@ gtodon I repeat, AT THE TIME OF WRITING, south-east Asia and much of the globe I was travelling, again AT THAT TIME, my comment was 100% accurate.

Thankyou gtodon


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