Video chat on smartphones has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, and the tools available for Android have matured from gimmicky to genuinely useful. You have a lot of great options, but we think that Google Hangouts deserves the crown for the overall best and most well-integrated method to see and talk with friends.
In the time since we last selected Skype as our favourite video chat application for Android, the arena has shifted entirely. Lots of people went from not using their phones for video chat or video calls at all to having a best-in-class tool built in that they use regularly. So here’s our new favourite pick, along with where the competition stands today.
Platform: Android (and others)
- Places video calls to desktop and other mobile devices over 3G/4G and Wi-Fi
- Supports group video calls with up to 10 other people
- Synchronises your Hangouts and their history across devices so you can see what you talked about in the past, and review shared photos, links, or other media
- All video calls to other users are free (excluding data charges)
- Supports front and rear-facing cameras
- Supports Bluetooth and wired headsets for audio
- Supports chat, SMS, MMS, group SMS and MMS, video and picture sharing, animated GIFs and emoji
- Integrates with Google+
Where It Excels
Google Hangouts (formerly Google Talk on mobile devices, and just a web-based video chatting service inside of Google+) has grown since its launch to take the lead among free, web-based and mobile video chat services. It dominated our poll for best video chat service, and the fact that it’s already rolled into Android and easily available on iOS makes it simple to get, a cinch to set up (since all it requires is a Google account), and easy to start using. Google Hangouts has combined the best features about Google Talk and Google Voice in one useful (if not perfect) application.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Google Hangouts is totally free of charge. Video hangouts, chats, picture and video sharing — all of it is completely free from the desktop or from your mobile devices. Simply drop your images or your messages into Hangouts, and your friends will get them instantly. They can even see when you’re reading their messages, and you can see when they’re typing.
All of that is great, but video chat is where Hangouts really takes the cake. In iOS and Android, Hangouts supports virtually every device and version, and you have the option of using your front or rear-facing camera in your video chat at any time.
Since video chats can be held with up to 10 people, you can communicate with large groups and collaborate on files (although this is much better on the desktop), or you can turn an impromptu conversation into one that’s much more personal since you can see the other person’s face. Plus, it works like a charm on 3G/4G or Wi-Fi, regardless of the device you’re using.
Where It Falls Short
Hangouts is great, but it’s not perfect. It’s often prone to glitches and strange quirks that can make it work seamlessly one day and then just fail to stay connected or work properly the next. I’ve seen mobile users with gorgeous camera quality one week, then the next week their cameras look like someone shattered the lens — but if they flip to the rear camera, it looks fine. Plus, Hangouts is very much a work in progress for Google, so if you’re looking for an app that won’t change a lot between now and the next time you need to use it, Hangouts may not be your best choice. It won’t change so much as to be unrecognisable, but Google’s iteration process isn’t exactly slow, and Hangouts has been updating regularly with new features and tweaks.
Similarly, if you’re looking for a solution with robust customer support and the option to get fast and attentive help when you do have a problem, Hangouts isn’t that product. Google’s products are generally free, and Google Groups does have a wealth of experts and enthusiasts willing to help you out, but there’s no one to call if you have an issue or question you desperately need answered.
Skype (Free), our previous favourite, is still a strong contender. Its user-base is massive, it’s cross-platform and cross-device, and it offers a wealth of tools that let you talk to people face-to-face or via IM, all on your Android phone. It’s free to talk to other Skype members, and to video chat with them, but once you start calling landlines and talking to people’s phones, you’ll have to pay. However, the days of Skype being pre-installed on most people’s Android phones as a video chat option are over, as more people move to Hangouts instead. That doesn’t mean Skype isn’t worth looking into — it just means it’s another great option to have around in case Hangouts doesn’t work for you for some reason, or you’re talking to someone who prefers to use it.
Fring (Free) is still a strong alternative to the big names. It supports group video chat, it’s cross-platform, it allows you to register with your mobile phone number instead of forcing you into another account you may or may not use, and it supports free texting, picture and video messaging, and cheap calls to landline phones. It’s not quite as feature-packed as the others, but it does focus on the core basics.
Tango (Free) has grown exponentially since we last talked about it. It supports video calls to other Tango users on Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and Windows desktops. Tango lets you place regular voice calls and switch to video calls when you want to share something, and supports text, picture, and video sharing — not to mention audio sharing via Spotify. Video call quality could be better and doesn’t seem to have improved terribly much as cameras have improved, but it’s definitely serviceable.
Oovoo (Free) offered great video quality in our tests, but you do have to be an Oovoo user to really make the most from the app. The mobile experience is solid, even with group chat running and a bunch of people talking at once. It doesn’t hurt that the app is gorgeous, with a beautiful design, a speed dial for video chatting your best friends, status messages so you can see if people are available before you ping them, support for picture and video messaging, and the ability to pull in contacts from Gmail, Facebook and other services you probably already use.
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