When you’re at home you probably often hang out with friends and family.
When you’re traveling, you can “see” them using Apple’s Facetime or Skype’s video calling apps, or exchange text messages. But those are one-on-one encounters, not “group communication.”
Google is trying to change all that with the latest iteration of its “Hangout” software, making it easier for you to do multi-party texting and video calls, especially from smartphones and tablets.
Here’s how the new “Google+ Hangouts” work.
What You Need to “Hangout”
To initiate or participate in a “Google+ Hangout” you’ll need:
- An Apple or Android smartphone or tablet, iPod Touch, or a PC or Mac computer.
- A free “Hangouts” app for iOS or Android. (Computer users need either the Chrome Web browser to use the Hangouts app, or a Google+ Page that will let them “hangout” without the app.)
- A Google+ Profile. (You won’t be able to perform most Hangout functions without one.)
- A broadband Internet connection.
Up to 150 people can “chat” during a Google+ Hangout. This Google Hangout promotional video (which also briefly demonstrates Hangout video calls) shows how multi-party chat works.
Hangout Video Calls
It’s easy to make a video call during a Google Hangout, even while you’re in the middle of “chatting.” Just tap the video camera icon to initiate the call, or tap “Answer” if someone is making a video call to you.
Up to 10 people can participate in a video call. (Those with Google+ Premium can have 15 participants.)
You can mute your microphone during the video call or, if you’re having a “bad hair day,” tap on the video camera icon on your mobile device or computer to turn off the camera so other participants won’t see your messed-up mop.
If you’ve got a mobile device with both front and rear cameras, like my iPhone 5, you can switch between them during the call. (“Hi, Mom! It’s me in Paris! (Switch to rear camera) Isn’t the Eiffel Tower way cool?”)
To end a video call, just tap the red telephone handset icon.
Sharing Info During a Hangout Video Call
In theory, you can share Google Drive documents, what’s on your computer screen (via “Screen share”), or jointly watch a YouTube video (that is “Public” or “Unlisted,” but not “Private”) with others participating in a Google+ Hangout video call. (Click here for more information on sharing YouTube Videos during a Hangout.)
To do so, you use the YouTube or Google Drive app from the app list on the left side of the Google Hangout Screen on your computer. That’s easy enough to do if you use Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer Web browsers.
Unfortunately, you won’t have access to either the YouTube or Google Drive apps when participating in a Google+ Hangout on an iOS mobile device. So you won’t be able to see Google Drive documents or YouTube videos shared by a Hangout participant using a computer, nor be able share Google Drive documents or YouTube videos from your mobile device with other Hangout participants. (This limitation probably also applies to Android mobile devices.)
Video Quality and Internet Connection
The video quality during a Google+ Hangout is likely to depend heavily on the strength of users’ Internet connections. If you’ve got a strong connection, video quality should be good. A poor connection may produce pixelated video, and choppy or delayed (not full-duplex) audio.
Each participant to a video call needs a broadband connection.
- For 1:1 connections, Google suggests a 1 mbps/1 mbps (up/down)
- For group video connectivity,it suggests 1 mbps/2 mbps (up/down)
Here’s more on minimum and maximum bandwidth requirements:
Minimum bandwidth required:
- Outbound from the participant: 256 kbps
- Inbound to the participant: 512 kbps
Ideal bandwidth for the best experience:
- Outbound from the participant: 1 mbps
- Inbound to the participant: 2.5 mbps
With group video calls of more than 2 people you can expect bandwidth usage in ideal situations to be:
- Outbound from the participant in all situations: 900kbps
- Inbound to the participant with 5 participants: 2mbps
- Inbound to the participant with 10 participants: 3mbps
Using a headset with a boom microphone, or even earbuds and microphone like the one you get with an Apple iPhone, will probably improve the quality of your voice transmission and help prevent someone else’s audio “feeding back” through your microphone and producing an ear-piercing screech.
Data Plan “Calorie Consumption”
If you make a Hangout video call over your cellular carrier’s network, you’ll be “eating away” at your monthly data plan allowance. Keeping calls short should help keep you under that monthly cap.
If you’re traveling outside of your own country (the U.S., for me) you’ll definitely want to purchase a short-term international data plan to keep your cellphone bill from drastically depleting your bank account.
To avoid these data plan issues, try to do your Hangout video calls over Wi-Fi only, so those calls won’t consume any data under the plan with your carrier.
“Hangouts on Air”
Google calls the type of Hangouts we’ve discussed so far a “Hangout Party.”
That person also is the moderator of the Hangout on Air, can mute the microphones of any participant, and decide whether to display thumbnail images of the participants below the main Hangout video screen.
Unfortunately, you can’t share YouTube videos during a Hangout on Air.
Android mobile device owners can join, but not initiate a Hangout on Air. [8/5/13 Update: iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch owners can now join a Hangout on Air, too.]
Hangouts vs. Facetime, iChat and Skype
Apple’s Facetime works on iPhones, iPads, the iPod Touch, and Mac computers, but only supports one-on-one video calls and has no chat feature.
Apple’s iChat lets you do text chat, audio chat, or video chat, but only works on Mac computers.
Skype users with free subscriptions can do one-to-one video calls, and 25-person voice conference calls if every participant has a Skype account. Skype users with a paid subscription can make video calls with up to 10 participants.
Yesterday we learned that Google has just updated its mobile Hangouts apps to:
- Let users to send and click on links
- Let users invite friends to Hangouts via SMS
- Let users set up in-app sounds when receiving a message
- Provide support for iOS 6.0 on Apple mobile devices
- Fix miscellaneous program bugs
We haven’t run additional tests as yet to see if the app update has made any significant change to the way Hangouts operate on the Apple iPhone and iPad. However, this report on the update says that you could “start the conversation with your Apple iPhone in the morning, and switch to your Apple iPad once back home after a hard day at work.”
The next major improvement to the Hangouts App that Google should implement is allowing Apple mobile device users to initiate and participate in Hangouts on Air.
More About Google Hangouts
For a comprehensive overview of using Google+ Hangouts, watch this 36-minute YouTube training video, “What’s a Google+ Hangout Now – Naming the parts and pieces.”