Google Duo video-calling app review: Simple, works well

Google Duo, the new video calling app from the search giant, relies on an simple UI and works well.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | Updated: August 18, 2016 5:13:31 pm
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Duo, Google’s video calling app, is the latest entrant in this market which has plenty of options. For many of us, who’ve been privileged enough to have access to computers since the early 2000s and before in India, video calling might not sound like something new. I’ve used Skype for sometime now; it was an important tool to keep in touch with my friends after college ended. Viber was also a personal favourite with many friends. When I got an iPad, FaceTime became the default app, specifically to chat with my closest friend in the US. And now WhatsApp also has plans to bring in video calling.

But Google has launched Duo first. I’ve had the Duo app on iOS for a little over a week, and the first thing that strikes you is how simple and basic this app is. All you need to sign-in is a mobile number, and that’s a strategy Google is hoping will help it win over more first time users in India. Once I signed-in, the only two people I could see present on the app were my boss, and a friend in the US, who had also managed to get early access to Duo.

As a concept, Duo’s bare minimal interface works in its favour. You open the app, and your front video camera is already on. There’s a video call button, followed by your recent contacts next to them. Click on the video call button, and Duo shows the list of all contacts who have the app, followed by the entire phonebook, with the word invite next to these names. However, the app the doesn’t let me invite others for now; and this is a developer version that I’ve been using.

Tap on the contact’s photo or name and your video call will begin. Google will remind you the video is live to other user, even if they have not picked up the call yet. This is similar to FaceTime, where the video is live before the call is picked. And no, you can’t do group calls with this. The Limit Data Usage option is on by default in this app, and in the settings you can add a list of Blocked Numbers as well.

However, when my iPhone was on low battery mode, Duo does show an option to disable video, and just continue with an audio call. But the app doesn’t have a specific audio call option highlighted, like FaceTime does. A missed call from a friend shows up below the contact’s photo, and again you can just tap on it to call back.

Also see: Duo, Google’s video calling app goes live; will take on Skype, FaceTime

The first time I tried making calls on 3G, I couldn’t get through to my friend, and the problem persisted even when I was back home with the WiFi in my house. I’ve also tried using this while travelling through the city of Delhi, where 3G connectivity is patchy at best, and I’ve had better luck.

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In the video call with my boss, the video quality improved once he switched to WiFi. In my friend’s case, the video was fine from his end, while mine was not. So yes, your download and upload speeds will make a difference to how well a video call goes on Duo. But so far, the video calling has worked.

The other problem I see with Duo is the person’s network of friends and family. It’s not really easy convincing people to move to a new app, and especially just for video calling. I’m not sure how I will convince the friend or my brother-in-law who use FaceTime to make Duo as the default app. For families that use FaceTime to connect, very few might see the need to switch, simply because there’s nothing wrong with the app they are using just now. Unless they give up their Apple product, and move to Android because unlike FaceTime, Duo is cross-platform. But then are other apps that Duo will need to beat with Skype being one of the major players.

Nonetheless Duo pips WhatsApp by launching video calling first, and for once, you have a Google app that only needs your mobile number. In India, that’s a big win, because not everyone prefers signing-in via their Google account.

Duo is Google’s next big step in mobile, and we know this is a space where most battles between technology companies will be fought. Facebook with its WhatsApp and Messenger already has a significant grip on this segment, then there’s the rise of Snapchat. And now Google wants to fight back with Allo and Duo, where it keeps messaging and video calling separate. For sure Duo is easy to use, which is being touted as the highlight along with network efficiency. But can it become the default video calling app for everyone is another question.

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