Thursday, August 25, 2005

Review: Google Talk (Beta)

I really wanted to post something before Google released their new product, but got held up by other concerns. So I guess I'll just have to settle for a review.

Yes, it's official. A little more than 12 hours ago, Google released their latest attempt to take over our desktop: Google Talk (Beta). I think Gawk would have been a cooler name, but then again, what do I know? Naming conventions aside, the main reason this post is coming late is because I just spent 2+ hours trying to connect to the server, and another 1 hour or so testing it. That by no means indicates it's a difficult program to use; I'm just an idiot.

It's actually a very simple chat program; simply go to the Google Talk site and download the installer, and a quick install later, you're good to go. The only catch is you need to have a Gmail account. If you're in the US, that's no problems, since you can now get a Gmail account by sms. Otherwise, ask around; some of your friends are bound to have a few score invites lying around. Unfortunately, isnoop's Gmail invite spooler was shut down in June, but still, getting one shouldn't be a problem.

Once you've powered GTalk up, you'll be presented with a clean and simple login interface. Simply use your Gmail account to log into the server. If you're presented with a "Could not autheticate to server" message, you need to ensure that ports 80, 443 and 5222 are open. If you're running a firewall (like Zone Alarm or, heavens forbid, Windows Firewall), turn off the firewall, log into GTalk, then turn the firewall back on. That worked for me.

Once you're logged into Gtalk, you're presented with another clean and simple interface. Did I mention it's clean and simple? Gtalk is everything a chat program should be: straightforward, easy to use, fast, and without all the bells and whistles that bog down other IMs. Adding friends is devilishly easy. Since you're logged in using your Gmail account, your Gmail address book is readily accessible. In fact, simply start typing in the search bar, and contacts that match the query instantly appear, waiting to be added.

Clicking on a contact brings up a chat window, where you're presented with all of three functions. Type in the message area to send a text message, or click on the email or call buttons. Yes, that's why it's called Google Talk; while it doesn't yet support video conferencing, the talk quality was amazingly clear. Better still, it takes up negligible bandwidth and there's next to no lag. In fact, in a test I ran with Stupidboy, he sent me a message and spoke into his mike at the same time. The audio actually reached me before the text did. You're also able to hold up to 4 audio conversations at a time, though you can only speak to one at any one time; the rest are put on hold.

Gtalk also allows you to change a few basic settings, like notifiation options, audio, and so on. There's an option for you to keep a record of IM conversations, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to pull past convos up again later.

Status messages are basically Available or Busy, though Gtalk does allow you to type in personalised status messages. There's also a block function, though no appear offline/invisible.

One thing Gtalk doesn't support is offline messaging; ICQ is still the only widely used IM with that capability. It does, however, allow you to send email messages to your contacts. A single click loads Gmail in your browser, which I guess makes up for offline messaging.

I was a little concerned initially that Gtalk would automatically log you into Gmail, wondering if you were kept logged in while using Gtalk. I soon found out, thankfully, that Gtalk simply creates a new session, which ends once you sign out of Gmail.

Speaking of Gmail, Gtalk also monitors your email account and pops up a notification whenever you receive a new email in your Gmail inbox (if you want it to) . My only gripe with this is that's the only way Gtalk informs you of new emails, and the notify fades away after a few seconds, meaning you'll miss it if you're away.

If you use the new GDS2, you can also dock Gtalk as a panel on the sidebar, although that eats up even more precious screen real estate. It also makes it pretty small, and doesn't seem very practical to me.

The only two aspects I find Gtalk lacking are support for multichats and file-transfers; there's none. While I really like the whole "back to basics" ideology, those are two really useful tools that I feel should be included.

Also, the Gtalk support website acts up once in a while. That definitely needs to be addressed sometime soon.

Lastly, in contrary to previous speculation, Gtalk doesn't seem to be linked to Adsense in any way at all. There is no advertising at all anywhere on the interface (yet).

Overall, Google Talk is a really great product, especially for a beta. Google has stated they're rushing to add in additional features like language support before launch, so we should all be in for a treat. Get Gtalk if you use Gmail regularly or want a decent, simple, intuitive instant messaging program.


Scott said...

I forgot to add that the guys at InsideGoogle discovered a Gtalk easter egg. Waiting for a reply now. :)

Scott said...

Here's a fairly balanced review from ZDnet.