In their never-ending quest to knock Facebook off its perch as the most used social media platform this side of the Kuiper belt, the peeps at Google recently unveiled a host of new Google+ features that make the search giant’s social offering a lot more attractive. In fact, if you aren’t already using Google+, you’ll want to check it out soon.
New in Hangouts
Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, you’ll know that the Google+ Hangouts feature is catching fire as a free and easy method for people to communicate, both globally and locally. Numerous politicians (including the POTUS himself) have begun using Hangouts to hold online town hall meetings with their constituents, no doubt saving serious cash on airfare and conference halls. You can also initiate video conferences with up to 10 friends at a time from your computer or your mobile device. In their recent announcement, Google indicated the rolling out of a handful of interesting upgrades that might just get you off that Facebook bandwagon.
- Location Sharing – If you need to let a friend know where you are and aren’t into seeking out the nearest street sign and typing in the address – or if you just want to let everyone know where the party’s at – you can enable Location Sharing in Hangouts to broadcast your precise location. Your location can be set to approximate (using your Wi-Fi network) or precise (by turning on GPS). Just click the map pin icon in your current Hangout session to launch the Google Maps locator, then click “Share location”. Doing so attaches your location to whatever message you choose to send. Your recipient can then launch the map of your location on their end and plot a course straight to you.
- SMS Support – Prior to the upgrade, sending an SMS to a Google+ pal required you to toggle between the app and your texting platform. This is no longer the case, as Google Hangouts for mobile now comes with full SMS functionality, which essentially lets you send and receive text messages (or pics or videos) from inside the Hangouts app without the requirement of being logged into Hangouts. This shouldn’t be considered a way to bypass your carrier’s text limit however, as texts still count toward your carrier’s rate – so watch that. SMS support for Hangouts works on all Android devices 4.0 or higher. The way it works is simple: the first time you enter the updated Hangout app, you’re greeted with a message asking you if you want to enable SMS support. Options are “yes” or “maybe later.” After you’ve selected “yes” your conversations are imported into the Hangouts app. From that point forward, unless you decide to disable the feature in your settings, you’ll begin to receive texts through your Hangouts app. You can also choose whether to use Hangouts or your factory SMS platform anytime you begin a new conversation.
- Animated GIF Support – Because Google knows everyone’s grown tired of sharing boring, motionless images, the new and improved Hangouts will also feature the ability to send animated GIFs.
- Full-Screen HD – There’s nothing quite like a poor quality video image to make you feel as if the person you’re chatting with is a million miles away, which is why one of the upgraded functionalities of Google+ Hangouts is full-screen, 720p HD. Webcam lighting is also automatically enhanced. Improved video quality is being rolled out across desktop and mobile devices.
- Google Effects – In addition to lately released backgrounds that can be used to spice up video chat (these are labeled as still being in the experimental stage) comes the ability to entirely blur out the background in Hangouts, which could be an effective tool for professional video chat purposes. Other improvements to come include toggling between black and white video chat.
Better Organization for Photos and Videos
Sharing photos and videos is a big thing online, and why not? Until the world has decided it’s seen enough crazy cat photos and stupid human tricks, let the sharing continue. Google+ is making this even easier with the implementation of some fun functionalities and nifty organizational tools, many of which will be available for Android, iOS and desktop – still others which will only be available on devices running Android 4.3 or higher.
- Automatic Photo and Video Backup at Full Size – As a feature of the new and improved Google+ for mobile experience, you can set all photos and videos to automatically back up to your associated Google Drive folder as you take them. Additionally, you can select to back up all photos and videos currently on your mobile device. You can choose to back up your pics and videos at standard size or full size. When you go standard, there’s no limit to the number of either you can store online (as long as pics are 2048px or less and videos are 1080p or less and under 15 minutes long). If you store at full size, pics and videos will be put in your Google Drive storage and will count toward your storage limit there, where the first 15GB are free and you’ll have to pay for anything after. Other options let you choose to back up only when connected over WiFi, or WiFi and mobile connection, or not at all. The good news is that automatically backed up pics and vids do not get shared with anyone until you specify you want that to happen.
- Auto Awesome – With a name like that, it’s got to promise some pretty cool features, and it does. Auto Awesome offers a suite of unique photo and video enhancements that include: Auto Awesome Action, which can combine a series of photos into one shot to simulate motion; Auto Awesome Eraser, which can literally erase background objects and people from a photo; and Auto Awesome Movie, which automatically stitches selected videos and still images together to create a mini-movie. Auto Awesome Movie includes controls that let you set background music and determine the length of the mini-movie. And of course, the final product is easily sharable via Google+.
- Photo Editing Tools – Once you access your photo gallery on Drive, you can click on specific images and enhance or edit them. Once you open up a photo, all you have to do is click “Edit” to launch a series of tools that enable you to tune the image, crop and rotate, adjust brightness and saturation, and other controls normally associated with third party editing programs.
- Intuitive Search – Not everyone has time to name their photos for future reference, or to page through their expansive online photo gallery in search of something they want to share. Now new with Google+ it’s simple to take a snapshot on your phone, save it to Drive, then find it later by keying in a search term. According to Google, it can now recognize over 1,000 different objects. This will purportedly make it easy to enter in search terms like “bike” or “mountain” to instantly access all photos of bikes or mountains in your Drive gallery. Searches can be limited to your own gallery or expanded to include the shared images of your friends in Circles.
- Sharing Control – Improved sharing controls let you decide when an image gets shared and who gets to see it. Clicking the “share” button on a photo launches a comment box and lets you make photos public or choose certain individuals you want to be able to access the image in Google+.
Not Another Facebook
Google+ may not end up dethroning Facebook as the King of All Social Media anytime soon, but the latest upgrades have made some great headway toward offering a viable alternative for anyone tired of the same-old. Placing heavy emphasis on improvements to photos and videos, in addition to Hangout enhancements, Google is basically playing to its strengths instead of trying to become just another Facebook clone. Kudos.