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Review: Google Hangouts for iOS

hangouts

One of the rumored services leading up to Google I/O was a unified chat tool known to sources as “Babel.” The purpose of this tool would be to bring all of Google’s fragmented chat and messaging services together under one name and one application. Yesterday during the I/O keynote, the company unveiled that tool, but it wasn’t called Babel. Instead, it took over the name of Google+’s video chat feature: Hangouts.

At the moment, Hangouts appears to pull two Google services together into one streamlined app: Google Talk (or “G-Chat”) and Google+ Hangouts. There are now separate Hangouts apps available for Android and iOS, and the chat feature inside Gmail has become part of Hangouts, too. The release of the Hangouts app, by the way, marks the first time that Google has released a first-party iOS app for its chat service, even though a slew of apps exist for other Google products.

So, how does the iOS app stack up? Can Google Hangouts take back some of the chat market from Facebook now that the service is truly cross-platform? Let’s dive in and find out.

The good

Like most of the iOS apps Google has been putting out lately, Google Hangouts is gorgeous, and that beauty comes from the app’s simplicity. There isn’t a lot of flair, here — you’re shown only what you need to see and nothing more. A simple UI can backfire, though — more on that later.

This is where your Hangouts conversations are stored.

This is where your Hangouts conversations are stored.

In terms of text-based chat, Hangouts gets the job done. The conversations taking place in the app sync up with the chats going on in your Gmail inbox, and all chats are archived in the app as well as inside Gmail so you can access them later. You can talk with one user or add several, and you can also drop some photos into the conversation if you so choose.

And the app is called Hangouts, so you know it’s going to do video chat. You can launch a video hangout with up to nine other individuals regardless of what device they’re using. My testing of the video chat feature showed pretty decent video quality most of the time. There were several instances where the quality dropped and things became extremely blurry, and one instance where video cut out completely but audio remained intact.

All in all, I was pleased with both text-based chat and the video calling feature. But not everything was peachy.

The bad

Perhaps this is a failure in communication by Google or maybe I just had different expectations for this app. But when I first launched Hangouts, I was expecting a chat application in the vein of Facebook Messenger. Messenger handles live and offline messaging the same way, though it makes it very clear who is online and offline. There’s also no great mystery about where the people on your chat list came from.

When you first jump into the Hangouts app and you’re shown the “New Hangout” screen, you’re shown a couple of people you chat often with at the top and then a seemingly random list of people you’ve circled on Google+. I’m still not 100% on this, but Google appears to be fading the pictures of offline users a little bit to show that they’re offline. Anyone who has used Instagram knows that a photo run through a filter can look this way, so you’ll spend more time than you should studying the photos of your friends to determine if the fading was done by them or by Google.

Seriously, what’s wrong with a small green strip or something? I have a feeling this simple issue will be one of the first things Google patches up.

Next, the chat list. I’ve been examining my Gmail chat list, my Google+ circles and the list inside Hangouts and I have absolutely no idea why certain people are on the Hangouts list and certain people aren’t. I can tell you that your friends probably aren’t showing up in Hangouts unless you have them added to a Google+ circle — at least, that’s the case for me. And I don’t see any way to hide certain users from your list. One last complaint: your random list of chat friends is sorted alphabetically, regardless of online or offline status.

Google, please just put the online users at the top like every other app. Thank you.

Finally, this is a small issue but it’s one that surprised me. The new Hangouts app exists to pull all of Google’s messaging services together, right? Then why does the separate Messenger app still exist for Google+? Just to make sure that app was still living on outside of the Hangouts umbrella, Jeff and I shot a few messages back and forth. None synced up inside Hangouts or in Gmail, and the chat was not archived. So, despite Google’s best effort to consolidate its chat and messaging tools, it left one out — two if you count Google Voice.

The verdict

If you’re a constant G-Chat user or you make use of Hangouts on a regular basis, you’ll definitely want to download the Hangouts app. It’s pretty to look at and it does the core things right, though the flaws with the chat list are annoying. You’ll also want to make note if, for whatever reason, you use Google+ Messenger: this app does not replace Messenger.

Hangouts for iOS is a good start and, if Google commits to fixing and updating it regularly, it could wind up being one of the better chat applications on the platform. For now, it’s not quite as good as Facebook Messenger, but it’s nice to finally have a Google-built chat app for the iPhone and iPad.

Hangouts for iOS is a free download in the App Store. If you try it out, let us know what you think.

 

— Shawn Farner

Shawn Farner is a Harrisburg-based tech blogger who has been involved in online media for over seven years. He covers consumer electronics, Web-based services, and tech startups. Read disclosures here.