Recently, Google has opened to the public its Google+ service in a bid to finally get into the social networking game, after its complicated Wave and, to some extent, Buzz projects were unsuccessful. Google+ is very exciting in and of itself, but one of its coolest features is Google Hangouts, its group video chat service.
Google Hangouts at a Glance
Bottom-line: Google Hangouts looks great and is both fun and easy to use. As with your Google+ status updates, you can choose which groups of people you want to invite to your Google Hangouts session, making it easy to start a video conference in seconds.
Pros: Browser-based, so nearly anyone on any system or web browser can use Google Hangouts. It is incredibly intuitive so anyone can easily start using this video chatting service. Voice and video quality are also great. The YouTube integration makes Google Hangouts fun to use.
Cons: The need for an invitation to Google+ to get started. If there’s a user being inappropriate during a hangout, they can be reported but not kicked out of the video chatting session. Also, on first use, you may need to update your plugins and restart your browser.
Price: Free, but currently requires an invitation to Google+.
Using Google Hangouts
To get started with Google Hangout, users need to install the Google Voice and Video plugin. This lets you use video in Hangouts, Gmail, iGoogle, and Orkut (another social network owned by Google). The plugin takes around 30 seconds to install. After that, you’re all set to start using Google’s newest video chat service.
Each hangouts session can hold up to 10 people using video.
When creating a hangout, you can choose which group of contacts, or circles, you want to invite to your video chat. A post will then appear on all relevant streams letting people know that a hangout is happening and it will list all the people currently participating.
If you’ve invited less than 25 people, each will receive an invitation to the hangout. Also, if you invite users who are signed into Google+’s chat feature, they’ll receive a chat message with an invitation to the hangout. Users who have been invited to a hangout but try to start their own, receive a notification that there’s already a hangout going on. Then, they get asked whether they want to join the existing session or create their own. Each hangout has its own web-address that can be shared, making it easy to invite people to hangouts.
It’s worth keeping in mind that hangouts are created by one user, but everyone that’s invited can invite others to your video chat. Also, it’s impossible to kick people out of a hangout.
While Google Hangouts is not a business-specific tool, it’s a great alternative to Skype when it comes to hosting larger, but informal, video chats, especially since group video chat on Google is free but Skype charges for it.
My favorite Google Hangouts feature is the YouTube integration, since it lets everyone watch videos together in real-time. One drawback so far is that the video isn’t synced between users, so while the videos being watched are the same, they could be at a different place for each user.
Once one of the chatters clicks on the YouTube button, the group can choose the video they want to watch, by doing a simple search. When a video is being played, microphones are muted to avoid echoes, and those on the video chat need to click on the ‘push to talk’ button in order to be heard by other participants. Whenever this happens, the sound of the video goes down, so it doesn’t have to be paused for people to be heard. If the YouTube video is muted, the ‘push to talk’ button will disappear, and the microphone volume is activated again. If a user decides to unmute their microphone while a video is playing, the video will be muted.
I found it to be not only fun, but useful watching videos during a hangout. Users can upload videos and presentations relevant to their video chat to YouTube, and easily share them with all their participants. Best of all, even when watching a video, you can still see your video chat participants, as their image is displayed below the YouTube video. There’s no need to reshuffle your video chat screens in order to see all of your participants.
Finally, a Video Chatting Tool That Can Challenge Skype
While there are other great video chat / conferencing tools around, Skype has managed to reign supreme in this arena up until now. But with its ease of use, lack of downloads, YouTube integration and great looks, Google Hangouts seems poised to take over Skype as the most popular video chat service in the market.
One of the main benefits of Google Hangouts is that as long as you (and those you’re talking to) are on Google+, you can start a video chat in just a few clicks, and in a matter of seconds. Skype requires people to download and install its software, and also to create an account. Since Google Hangouts works with Gmail, there are no additional user names or passwords to remember, as long as you have access to a Gmail login.