In the age of closed ecosystems, it is perhaps surprising to see the one supposedly “open” vendor – Google – quietly trying to lock you into its own services.
That is certainly the case with Google Hangouts, a videoconferencing feature which launched alongside the Google + social network back in the early stages of 2012. The iPad app (free, iTunes), however, only launched in May.
The service is reliant on you having both a Google+ account and a Gmail account. Providing you have both, setting up Google Hangouts on your iPad is pretty straightforward.
You are required to sign in and authenticate with Google, and you’re also be asked to accept or deny the app’s permission to send push notifications.
The app then guides you to adding an existing picture or taking a new one with the iPad’s camera and having done this, you will see a very simple – if unremarkable – landing page detailing your recent ‘hangouts’.
In theory, it should be easy to start a new group or personal Hangout. There is a search bar at the top for typing a contact’s name, email address or phone number – you can even add a Google+ group – and on selecting the contact there are options at the bottom of the screen for sending a message or starting a video call.
This is where I started running into problems. For starters, most of my iPad contacts (which were imported to the app) are not on Google+ so scrolling through greyed out Google profile pictures was pretty time-wasting.
But there was an altogether bigger problem – I couldn’t make outgoing calls to other Google+ users from the iPad. I tested this on numerous occasions and to different Google+ users. Each time I started a call, it would ring and then end.
You add callers by pressing the + button on the contact’s name but it only finally worked when an existing conversation with one of your contacts. So for example, you would be able to return a call to your boss providing you had spoken or messaged them earlier on Hangouts.
Receiving calls was, thankfully, a lot more straightforward. The full-screen is occupied with the name and picture of your contact and there are simple options to accept or decline the call.
The call quality was OK and I was able to hear the caller clearly, but Google Hangouts is by no means perfect in the call transmission. For aside the problem of calling out from the iPad, Google Hangouts on desktop (I also tried calling a user on the iPad from my desktop) would sometimes still believe that a hangout was still on-going…even though the other caller had long since hung-up.
Messaging was an altogether different proposition, which perhaps is to little surprise given Google’s own ad promotes Hangouts as an unlikely WhatsApp replacement.
The message layout is similar to Skype and responses are delivered instantly. The font size is readable and large enough (although some reviewers may not agree). Providing you’ve allowed push notifications, you’ll get notified when a new message has come through, which is useful.
Other elements of Google Hangouts are pretty neat too. Adding contacts is as simple as conducting a quick Gmail search and you can add these contacts into your Google+ circles.
In settings, there are options to snooze or turn off notifications – useful if you have a persistent friend – as well as tools for adding Google+ accounts and customizing new contact requests.