Facebook today launched a trio of new chat products including browser-based video chat powered by Skype. Last week Google launched their Google+ initiative, which includes Google Hangouts, a chat service that supports audio, video, and text chatting between up to ten people at a time.
What's the deal with Facebook video chat and Google Hangouts? What does each offer, how do they work, and how can you sign up? I roped Sean, Emily and Jon Q into testing the services out with me earlier today. Our journey into chat is documented in the video embedded above, which runs through a Hangout and a Facebook video chat. I apologize for the overexposed image quality – I wanted to "film the screen" and not use a screen capture tool so I could speak and point at the display during filming, but the result is a pretty washed out video.
In a nutshell it goes like this: Facebook video chat is super easy to use, and designed for one-on-one chats. While the product will be rolled out to all supported users in due time, you can manually install the Java app now by going to facebook.com/videocalling. Supported users, by the way, currently means those running Mac OS X or Windows; Linux is not supported. Once you've downloaded and installed a single .jar file, a camera icon will show up in your chat interface. Click on the camera next to a friend's name and you initiate a video call; if said friend hasn't yet installed the video chat app he'll be prompted to do so. Once your friend accepts the call, boom, you're video chatting.
The product is simple, and the features are limited: One-on-one calls only (group chat is a paid option via Skype), in a floating window that's resizable but doesn't allow you to move or resize the self-preview display that's inset. Sean and I tried the service a few times, me on a MacBook Pro and he on an iMac, and two out of three times it worked like a charm. The other time things were fine on his end but I got an error message (erroneously) telling me that Sean didn't have an active camera. Video quality was solid, though slight audio sync issues came and went and came again throughout our chats. All in all the product is dead simple and good enough for now, quality-wise. What I saw of today's press conference definitely made it feel like Zuck and Co. rushed the new chat services out as a reaction to the Google + launch, and I fully expect some tweaks and updates in the coming weeks.
Google Hangouts, on the other hand, is more feature-rich but a bit more complicated to set up and use. A subset of the Google+ service, Hangouts offers audio/video/text chatting, and integrated YouTube browsing, for up to ten users at a time. In order to use Hangouts, you'll have to have Google's Voice and Video Plugin, which requires Windows XP+, Mac OS 10.5+ or Linux. Chatting involves creating a hangout, inviting people to join either via Circles or individually, and then "hanging out" together in a virtual room comprised of a main content window and several smaller thumbnail windows, one per participant.
What's cool about Hangouts is that you can chat one-on-one or in a group, and it's all free. Google also programmed in some nifty technology that auto-switches the main window content to whoever's currently speaking, which makes it easier to follow a group chat. Users may also participate via voice-only, which is handy in a case like today, when one person was literally under the weather and didn't want to show her face. Integrated text chat is handy, and the shared YouTube browser is fun – on the one hand it feels like a little bit of a shameless self-promoting throw-in, but on the other hand it's easy to opt out of watching a video (without killing it for others in the group), so it's pretty innocuous.
Video quality in a Hangout varies depending on how many people are chatting and what everyone's connection quality is like. But all in all it was pretty acceptable. Image quality wasn't quite as sharp as in Facebook's Skype-powered client, but there were fewer A/V sync issues to deal with. Jon Q had some problems using his external a/v equipment in our chat, which reminds me of ongoing issues I've had using non-Google video tools on my MacBook Pro after installing Google's Video Plugin months ago.
The big problem with Hangouts isn't really with Hangouts at all; it's with the limited and complicated nature of Google+ in its current state. Google+ isn't yet an open platform, so not everyone can just sign up and play. And while I haven't spent a ton of time fiddling with Google+ yet, so far I'm not finding it entirely intuitive to use. While the concepts of Circles and public Hangouts make sense to me, I'm still wanting for dead simple UI elements like a green circle in my Contacts list that lets me know that Sean is online and available to chat. Or Hangout. Or whatever.
Both Facebook video chat and Google Hangouts are worth checking out, and they're both usable – if not perfect – in their current form. Whether you'll deem either or both worth adopting on a regular basis really depends on your needs, your social habits, and whether or not you have a Google+ invite.
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