Google launched a major overhaul of its Hangouts app for iOS on Thursday, adding features that may threaten other popular messaging apps that have been hogging the spotlight as of late (I'm looking at you, WhatsApp). These new features include stickers and emojis, short-form video messaging, and location sharing--all of which can be found in competing apps.
This update couldn't come at a better time: Smartphone users now expect more from a messaging service than simple text communication, and as there's no shortage of feature-rich messaging apps to choose from, Google had to boost Hangouts' appeal to keep up. At first look, Hangouts 2.0 seems like a safe update that combines essential pieces of other messaging clients with a clean, Google-esque experience.
Hands on with Hangouts
If you're already familiar with Hangouts, the features you know and love are still there, but there's a design facelift awaiting you with emphasis on the app's new features. New users, too, should have no problem getting started with Hangouts for iOS. You need to link your Google account, which you can create straight through the app if you don't have one already. You also need to confirm your phone number, which helps other users locate and identify you.
Once you're logged in, the app loads the hangouts screen, where you'll see a list of saved chats--which Google refers to as individual hangouts--that you've had via the mobile app or Google+ through your web browser. Hangouts sync across devices, so you can go back and forth between your computer and your iPhone and have the entire conversation stay intact. Tap the hangout to open the chat, or swipe across a hangout to open up a quick menu where you can mark it as a favorite, launch a video chat with that contact, mute the conversation, or archive it.
When chatting in a hangout, you can now add more to your text messages by tapping the attachment button (paperclip icon) next to the text input box. New to the hangout experience is the option to add a Vine-like video message, which you access by tapping the camera button. Tap the shutter to take a photo; hold it down to record a video. Videos can be up to nine seconds long, and they play in a loop when sent. You can also attach photos from your Camera Roll, share your location, and add a sticker. Hangouts gives you 46 stickers--which are essentially gifs--to choose from, from advanced emojis to cats to clinking beer glasses.
Aside from hangouts, your main navigation bar at the bottom hosts three other pages: Contacts, Favorites, and Calls. You can make free calls to U.S.-based landline and mobile phones from within Hangouts; international calls have a fee.
Hangouts' flagship feature remains its video chats. You can make group video calls with up to 10 people, and each caller can choose to chat through the app or through the Hangouts feature within Google+. Video chatting is a much cleaner experience through the iPad instead of the iPhone: The added screen real estate means you can take advantage of picture-in-picture chatting with the whole group. Just make sure you're connected via Wi-Fi or cellular data to make a video call.
I have to admit: Video chatting with Hangouts through the iOS app still has much to be desired, even with the latest update. Calls are a little laggy, with the sound being a second or two behind the video feed, and the video quality is often really blurry. I haven't noticed it change when switching from a 4G to a Wi-Fi connection, either. For one-on-one mobile video chats, I prefer FaceTime.
Overall, Hangouts 2.0 is a vast improvement from its previous version. It still feels the same, but the refreshed look and added features are much welcomed. For Hangouts to really be a game-changer, however, I'd like to see improved video chat quality for iOS, or perhaps another feature unique to the Hangout experience that doesn't seem like a last-minute add to catch up to the rest of the messaging superstars.