Greener BeeGreen GadgetsHands on: Google Duo video chat

Keeping things simple, Google’s new one-button video chat app makes it easy to stay in touch with family and friends.

Unveiled at the Google I/O developer conference in Mountain View back in May, Google Duo is finally coming to the Android and Apple app stores this week. The minimalist free app lacks the bells and whistles of its rivals, which might frustrate power users but will delight their less-tech-savvy associates.

Google’s Duo video chat app makes it easy to catch up with friends in a galaxy far, far away. Photo: Adam Turner

Duo only supports video calls and we’re still waiting for Google to release the Allo chat app which it also unveiled at Google I/O. Fragmenting its communications tools across several apps is a risky strategy – plenty of people are annoyed with Facebook for spinning off Messenger into a separate app – so it will be interesting to see how people respond.

How do you use it?

Left: First time you use the app, you’re told Knock Knock is enabled. Middle: Launch the app and you see the Video Call button and your most recent calls. Right: Flick up to see a longer list of most recent calls. Photo: Adam Turner

You don’t need a Gmail account to use Google Duo. You simply download the app, tell it your mobile phone number and enter the confirmation code it sends you via SMS. The app also needs access to your microphone, camera and address book, as you’d expect.

Now the app fires up your phone’s front camera, showing your face and a single button: Video call. Press it and you’ll see your address book, with fellow Google Duo users listed at the top.

The app automatically detects if anyone else in your address book has installed Google Duo on iOS or Android, but it doesn’t tell you if they’re busy right now. In that way it’s more like Apple’s Facetime than Skype which offers presence status so you know whether someone is online and available to talk.

Google Duo’s party trick is Knock Knock, which lets you see live video of the person on the other end before you answer the call – a bit like a peephole in your front door so you can see who is there.

Left: Call Chewie on Google Duo and you’re told he can see you. Middle: When Chewie calls you, you can see him waving. Right: Once the call connects you can see your face in the bottom left corner. Photo: Adam Turner

Knock Knock is a cute feature when you’re expecting calls from family members who want to wave, but the novelty might wear off. You can switch it off in the settings but you can’t disable it on a call-by-call basis. A green “Your video is visible” message pops up to remind you that they can see you.

Apart from that the app is pretty basic, you can switch between the phone’s front and back camera, mute your microphone and flip the interface so you see yourself in the big picture and the person on the other end in the corner (handy when you’re using your rear camera to show them something).

The app’s settings are rather sparse but you’ve got the option to block specific numbers from your address book and limit mobile data usage. There’s no button to disable video and make voice-only calls, although if your battery is running low you’re offered the option to disable video when making a call (at least on an iPhone, I don’t know if the Android app also offers this option).

Can you depend on it?

Tested between iPhones and with Android devices, Google Duo isn’t completely reliable. Sometimes an alert pops up on your lock screen and the phone chimes. Other times it refuses to acknowledge an incoming call unless your phone is unlocked and the app is open.

In my house the problem seems to revolve around whether or not the person receiving the call is on Wi-Fi or mobile broadband – it generally works fine when they’re getting 30 Mbps from the Telstra 4G network but incoming calls don’t always pop up when they’re connected to the home Wi-Fi network relying on a crappy 4 Mbps DSL connection.

If the person you’re calling doesn’t respond after about six rings then “Trouble with reaching ‘Name'” pops up on the screen. Occasionally they’ll be notified of an incoming call after you’ve hung up.

The problem seems to be more with slow broadband speeds than Wi-Fi, as the situation improved somewhat when I moved to a friend’s house and used their Wi-Fi network backed by NBN fibre. Even then it wasn’t perfect.

To be fair you might have experienced similar issues with Facetime, Skype and other comms apps. Google Duo’s problems could just be teething issues but the fact is that all online communications can be fickle and your mileage may vary.

Video quality is obviously going to vary depending on your internet connection, although in my tests it looked slightly sharper than Apple’s Facetime. Like all video chat, faces look sharp when people stay still but lose some detail when they move around.

When would you use it?

Most of us already have our video chat app of choice; probably Facetime for calls between iPhones, Google Hangouts between Android devices and Skype for cross-platform calls. If this sounds like you then there’s no real reason to change unless you’re keen to use Knock Knock.

You might find Google Duo useful if some of your less tech-savvy family members struggle with more complicated apps  – you can see a list of recent callers but it’s a shame the app doesn’t let you create a favourites list to make life even easier for tech novices.

You might find your current video chat apps easy enough to use, but don’t underestimate the appeal of Google Duo’s giant Video call button for people who aren’t overly confident with new technology.

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