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Google Duo: A Cross-Platform Video Chat App

by Sandy Berger

These days, telephone calls inevitably have some kind of video-chat option. iPhone users have access to Apple’s FaceTime, a very easy to use video-calling app. The problem, of course, is that it requires each caller to be using an Apple device.

I use FaceTime when I can, but I have many friends who own Android devices. Although there are video-calling apps for Android, most of them (like Google Hangouts and Skype) are fairly complex. Or they require a membership like Facebook Messenger.

Google realized this and filled the need for a simple cross-platform video calling app with Google Duo (available free in the iTunes Store as well as in the Google Play Store). Duo is simplicity at its best. There are no video filters, no group chats, no animated GIFs and no texting. It’s an easy-to-use-video-calling mechanism and nothing more.

Setup

Setup is simple and straightforward. Just download the app and enter your phone number. Then approve the necessary permissions, including the ability to use your camera, microphone and contact list. You will also be asked for permission to use texting, which is used to invite others to download the Duo app. You may also be asked to input the number that you are sent in a text message to confirm your telephone number.

Google Duo - Give Access Screen

Tap on “Video Call” and the app will take you to your contact list. Contacts who already have Duo installed will appear on the top. If the person you want to contact doesn’t yet have Duo, you will see the word “Invite” next to their name. Tap their name and they will get a text asking them to download Duo. You can also choose a name from your contact list or enter a telephone number.

Google Duo - Invite Screen

Lack of Desktop Component

Unfortunately, Duo has no desktop component. It can only be used on phones. Those who work on a desktop computer for most of the day and like to transfer calls from the desktop to their mobile phone will miss this feature. For the rest of us, it probably won’t matter.

Duo works with Android 4.1 or later. The design may vary slightly depending on the version you’re using.

Features

While using Duo you can mute your microphone and toggle between your phone’s front- and rear-facing cameras. Everything in the app is snappy and responsive, which is a pleasant surprise in a video-calling app. I really like how tapping the preview bubble in the bottom left-hand corner toggles between a full-screen view of your caller’s video and your own.

Knock Knock

When you make a call using Duo, the Knock Knock mode is automatically turned on. This lets the call recipient see you before they answer the call. They can’t hear you until you answer and you can’t hear or see them before they answer. The idea is that they are “knocking at the door” and you’re looking through the peephole.

Although it sounds a bit odd, Knock Knock is really fun to use. You can make faces, hold up notes, or show that you are excited or sad even before the call is answered.

As might be expected, the Duo experience can be slightly different depending on which ecosystem you use. If a Duo call comes in when you are using your iPhone, Knock Knock works just like it does on Android. If, however, your iPhone is locked, you receive a ringing and vibration but you don’t see the Knock Knock screen. This takes a little of the fun out of using the app.

Quality

Picture quality is excellent. I tested it on a Samsung Galaxy and a newer iPhone and found that the quality of the picture was equal to that of FaceTime, which can only be used on Apple devices. I felt that the quality actually surpassed that of Skype and Google Hangouts. The Duo app is able to seamlessly switch between Wi-Fi and cellular service. Both worked well for me.

Google states that Duo calls have end-to-end encryption, but they are sparse on the details of their encryption methodology.

Drawbacks

The biggest drawback is that there is no way to use Duo without turning on your video. If you’ve been working in the yard and are covered with sweat or mud you cannot just answer the phone. The caller will see you in all your grubby glory. Additionally, there’s no easy way to send a quick message saying that you will call them back.

Also, the app is designed for one-to-one communications. So there is no group calling available, a feature that both Skype and Google Hangouts have. With these other services, you can add up to 10 participants. I would be happy if Google would give us the ability to conference with two or three others.

Duo is perfect for anyone who wants some quick instant communications. It is especially good for someone who is not used to video calling – think mom, grandma and any Luddite friends. It is, however, great for anyone who wants to make a quick and easy video call.

Sandy began her career as a computer programmer and over the years has become a trusted authority on a variety of tech, gadgets and gizmos. A regular on TV, radio and podcasts, Sandy speaks at tech events around the world.

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