The stock SMS app is dead on Android. Long live SMS in Google Hangouts (free)! This chat app was born when Google Hangouts consumed Google Talk, and now it’s gobbled up SMS and Google Voice as well. Hangouts has the potential to be the best messaging app on any platform, but it turns out merging four distinct messaging systems together can be a little, well, messy. It will take some effort on your part to make this powerful messenger work for you.
The new features of Hangouts require at least Android 4.0 and an update to the Hangouts app. If you want to get access to Google Voice, you also have to download the Hangouts Dialer. Irritatingly, this second app doesn’t do anything on its own and just takes up space in your apps screen. Also, Hangouts never presented me with the option to sign up for Google Voice, only to incorporate it from an existing account. Signing up a new account appears to be handled separately.
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Friends, Messages, and Calls
Once you agree to use Hangouts for SMS and Google Voice calls and messages, the app presents three bright-green columns, one each for your friends, your text-based messages, and a dialer pad to make calls. Any calls you place through the dialer, either to contacts or numbers you dial, are placed using your Google Voice number. Google Voice calls to any number within the U.S. are free, and international calls cost just pennies per minute.
If you don’t have Google Voice, no problem; Google Hangouts supports voice calls all on its own with the same restrictions as Google Voice. The only difference between a voice call through Hangouts or Google Voice is that Hangouts voice calls appear to come from “No Caller ID” on most phones. During my testing, one voice call through Hangouts (not handled by Google Voice) was received as several separate calls—one call for each ring of the phone. Odd.
The people you contact the most appear at the top of the list in Hangouts, and the rest follow below. A search box makes finding someone a bit easier. If one of your contacts is currently active on a Google Service that shows Hangouts—such as Gmail or Google+—you see a green chat bubble next to his or her name. This layout feels much more familiar than the older version’s SMS-like approach. It reminds me a lot of old-style instant messaging.
Your messages appear in the center column—all your messages. Whether it’s text sent through Hangouts, IMs from users on other chat services, SMS messages to your phone, or text messages sent to your Google Voice number, it appears here. If your contacts list is in good order, your messages are merged into threads by user. So, my stepmother can text me from her phone, then continue chatting over the chat function in Gmail, and I’ll see it all in a single thread. Unfortunately, you can no longer swipe to archive message these threads, however.
When it comes to answering my stepmother, I can chose whether to respond with a Hangouts message or a text. By default, your SMS responses are sent from the same number that received the message. Google’s documentation suggests that you can change the number you respond with, but I wasn’t able to find a way.
Voice and Video
If you’re chatting with another Google user in Hangouts, you can convert your conversation into a live video call. Recipients can respond from their mobile devices or computers, even if they’ve already responded on another device. That new device appears as just another member of the group video.
In my testing, I started a video call between my Samsung Galaxy S5 and my ancient iPhone 4s over Wi-Fi. The video was not of stellar quality, but it was more than adequate. The video cut out a few times, but voice persisted. Your experience will likely vary depending upon your network. In my previous testing, I noted that Hangouts videos worked surprisingly well over 4G.
I particularly like that Hangouts lets you toggle between text and video, and front- and rear-facing cameras. Note that you’re limited to person-to-person video calls, unless you have a Google+ account, which supports up to 10 people.
Like video calls, Voice over IP calls made in Hangouts ring through anywhere Google Hangouts appears—including Gmail. I really like this feature because you can reach out and touch anyone, anywhere, though it also feels a bit intrusive. Perhaps I’ll get used to it. In my testing, I observed approximately 0.8 seconds of latency on the VoIP calls made through Hangouts. When I tested the secure iOS calling app Signal, which also uses VoIP to make mobile calls, I found a roughly 0.6-second delay for traditional cellular calls.
In my last review of Hangouts, I was annoyed and unnerved at how pushy the app’s notifications were. Every message appeared in the notification tray and at the top of the screen. And heaven help you if you’re IMing through Google’s services; your phone will never stop buzzing.
In the new version of Hangouts, the notifications seem far less intrusive, but they are also unpredictable. Messages don’t always appear at the top of the screen, but it’s not clear to me what determines when notifications are shown. It feels like an improvement, but it bothers me that I don’t understand what exactly is going on.
My testing only covered text messaging, video calls, and voice calls between two users. Looping in many people for video calls—particularly across multiple devices—can sometimes be difficult. In my anecdotal, outside-the-lab experiences, alert emails can arrive long after they were sent and an individual’s alert settings may mean they never see your invitation to video chat.
The Trouble With Contacts
Up to this point, the new Hangouts sounds like four different, but similar, Google services made stronger and better by being pulled together. The reality is more complicated, and it all comes down to contacts.
Experienced Googlers know that every single email address you encounter is saved in your Google contacts list, unless you’ve disabled a feature that’s on by default. But Google doesn’t collate this information. I’ve got separate entries for the same people with different information for each because I encountered them through different services. Some are even imported from my iPhone.
I was excited by Hangouts’s potential as an all-in-one messenger, but it turns out that using it is difficult. In practive, messages from the same people were split into different threads, and some messages went unattributed because I have the contact information on a different device. Google has provided instructions for merging threads, but my contacts are such a mess that I would have to invest a lot of time before it would make sense. For the braver of you, our productivity expert Jill Duffy has some good advice on cleaning up your contact list and keeping it tidy in the future.
I really like that Hangouts supports multiple accounts, and that it lets you easily switch among them from the right-hand tray. But this also compounded my confusion over who was sending me messages and what format I was using to respond in my testing.
Time to Hangout
The inclusion of Google Voice has been a long time coming to Google Hangouts. I love the new interface, resurrection of a traditional contacts list, and how the app touches so many different forms of communication. It really does it all, without you needing to sign up for yet another messaging service. Best of all, it lets you reach other people without them signing up for another service.
Hangouts should be simpler. It demands that you organize your contacts across all your accounts if you’re going to make any sense of it. Also, I found myself hesitant to respond to Hangouts voice calls and video messages that I wasn’t informed of beforehand. For some reason, I don’t think of Hangouts voice calls as regular phone calls, and unplanned video calls seem intrusive. Maybe I’ll get used to it.
There’s a lot of potential in Hangouts and the dedicated Android user with a pruned contacts list will love it. My score reflects that, but the Editors’ Choice crown will remain out of reach until Google introduces a better way to manage all the people you know with Google accounts. Viber, with its cross-platform and desktop support, is our current top pick for online messaging on Android.