With the rise of front-facing cameras on smartphones, the need for a good video chat app has increased, too. FaceTime and Skype 3.0 (Free, 4 stars) are currently the best in show, but they are only available for iOS devices. Android users have Fring (Free, 2.5 stars), Qik Video Connect (Free, 2.5 stars), and Tango (Free, 2.5 stars), and, while each app has interesting, innovative features, each also has one thing in common: poor video chat performance. Google has set out to rectify this with the addition of video chat to Google Talk, which will ultimately add a native, built-in video chat app to all Android devices. It’s a step in the right direction, but it feels incomplete. The video quality is good, but performance is spotty. And Google needs to get this app into the Android Market if it wants to have a real contender on its hands.
Availability and User Interface
Right now, Google Talk with video chat is only available to users running Android 2.3.4. And right now, the only device running Android 2.3.4 is Google’s Nexus S. So essentially, if you own an Android device, but it isn’t a Nexus S, you’re out of luck. Sorry. Google has not made it clear if this latest version of Google Talk will be made available in the Android Market, in which case it would reach a vastly wider audience. Hopefully that will be the case, as it is likely that many Android devices currently in users’ hands will never see an update to 2.3.4—or the Google Talk video chat that comes with it.
Since Google Talk is already part of Android, no setup is necessary. Simply open the Google Talk app, and sign in with your Google account (there is also the option to create one if you don’t already have an account). Once you’re logged in, there isn’t much of an interface to speak of. The main screen shows your availability, as well as that of your contacts, but that’s it. You can tap on your phone’s Options button to pull up a small number of selections, which allow you to add friends, search, or display your most frequent contacts.
Using Google Talk’s video chat, you can chat with any other Android user running the app (again, that’s only Nexus S users right now), or with any desktop Google Talk user. Clicking on a contact’s name will open a window you can use to have a text-based conversation. If the person you’re talking to is available to video chat, a tiny video camera icon will appear highlighted in green to indicate their status. Clicking on the icon will initiate a video call.
Video Calling, Performance and Conclusions
I tested video chat using a Nexus S 4G over 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi connections. Overall, video quality was rather good. It didn’t match the clarity of FaceTime, but it was about on par with Skype, which means it’s a good deal better than most of the competition. I made my first call to a desktop user over a Wi-Fi connection and was pleasantly surprised—for about a minute. The call looked good and felt relatively fluid. But then, out of nowhere, the image on my screen froze up. It came back about 10 seconds later, but the person I was chatting with said that my image froze on their machine as well.
This issue kept happening. The chat would start back up again and everything would seem fine for a minute or so, until we’d run into another hiccup. This issue persisted over 3G and 4G connections as well. Calls always connected easily and started off well, but would soon run into a performance hiccup that would dramatically slow the video down, cause the audio to drop or fall out of sync, or for everything to just pause completely for a few seconds. Without this issue, Google Talk would certainly rank among the better video chat solutions out there, as performance seems to be a stumbling block for most of these apps, and Google Talk is no exception.
Google Talk has a couple of good exclusive features. I particularly like its dual messaging/video chat capabilities. While you are in a video chat, if someone sends you a message through Google Talk, the text will appear on the bottom lefthand corner of your screen, across your video chat, for a few seconds. Clicking on it will bring you out of the chat and into the message. Additionally, tapping on the screen while in a video chat will bring up a few onscreen controls, which allow you to exit the conversation, disable the microphone, or bring up the messaging menu.
Right now, the Google Talk with video chat app is a whole lot of potential and not much else. Google needs to work on the video chat performance issues, and it needs to release this app into the Android Market. If they do these things, we will be looking at what is essentially the Android equivalent of FaceTime—or even better, since Google Talk can make video calls over 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi, as opposed to just Wi-Fi. But as it stands, Google Talk’s video chat is just another undistinguished video chat app, standing in line with an increasing number of competitors.