App Review: Google Duo

Three or so years or so ago, my father asked me if I’d be interested in joining in a group video chat on Oovoo. He’d seen one of his grandchildren using it, become interested and wanted to host a multiperson video chat. I agreed, because why not?, set up my iPad 2 in the dining room and joined him and several other folks for a multi-state, multi-generational, multi-platform video chat.

For him, it was a novelty and he never agreed to do another, usually under the guise of not remembering exactly how to work the software. Too bad.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the family, we haven’t done very much video chatting; my cousin Tim and I have done a couple of Facetime calls. I’ve been wanting to get him and his soon-to-be-three-year-old together on cam mostly so I can do all the stupid voices and stuff grownups do to entertain young kids. Maybe one of these days.

My little cousin also has a habit of calling me from my aunt’s phone. She decides she wants to talk to me, then tells my aunt to dial the number and off they go.

I’ve been trying to get my aunt into doing video for a long time now. We just replaced her Windows phone with an Android, so now she has Hangouts again. Which she doesn’t like. She doesn’t like anything on the phone that’s not easy. Which, for her and quite a few folks I know, Hangouts is not.

Enter Duo.

Back when Google announced Duo, they promised a dead simple video experience and Duo is exactly that. Whereas Hangouts requires you to have a friend list inside of the app, which you might or might not have, Duo only requires a telephone number and works with your existing contacts list. No Google account required. All you do is fire up the app, tap the button to make a video call, then either search your contacts or type the number you want to call.

On the other end, the recipient will see your name, number, and just as Google demonstrated back in May, video from your camera, a.k.a Knock Knock. Once the recipient accepts and starts the call, you can do the usual actions such as muting yourself and switching the camera. By default, your caller’s video plays on the larger part of the screen and your video plays in a smaller, cornered circle. You can change this and view your own video on the larger part of your screen.

However, unlike Facetime and Hangouts, you can’t turn the camera off.

One might consider turning the camera off as defeating the purpose of using the app, but you may be interested in doing a voice-only VoIP call or perhaps a call to a computer. That’s not what this is.

To that point, I couldn’t install Duo on my Galaxy Note tablet. I’m able to send and receive SMS messages from that tablet, so I imagine Duo might have worked the same way it did on my phone had the install gone through. If you want or need video calling on your Android tablet, you’ll probably have to stick with Hangouts or your other preferred app.

The install worked on my iPad, but with the device unable to receive SMS, there was no way to set up the app without an iPhone. Which I don’t have. Oh well.

As far as Duo’s settings go, you can turn off the vibration during ringing as well as Knock Knock, which will prevent video from your camera playing before the call is answered. You can also block numbers and limit the amount of mobile data used.

Video and audio quality were good over both WiFi and 4G/LTE.

Duo’s best feature is way beneath the hood: end-to-end encryption. If you have to say something you’re concerned will be intercepted, Duo’s your app. I wasn’t going to talk about saucy chat, but yeah, it’s probably good for things like saucy chat. But I’m not saying to use it for that.

A couple of items to bring up while discussing this app: carrier-supported video calling and iOS 10 VoIP integration.

I have T-Mobile and I can call other T-Mobile users as well as those whose MVNOs piggyback on T-Mobile (I’ve video called a Family Mobile user). Other carriers have video calling as well. As it stands now, I can initiate T-Mobile video calls directly from contacts or the phone dialer, which is more convenient than jumping into an app. Duo hooks into your contacts, but you can’t go into your contacts and launch Duo from there to make a call.

iOS 10 will allow people to use the app of their choice to make a call. And like Facetime and Hangouts now, some of these other apps will allow calls to and from devices like tablets and computers.

For an app like this, I’d like tighter integration into the phone’s dialer, but I can say the same with being able to launch Hangouts or whatever other app I might want to use to make a call, a la iOS 10. And in a world where that tighter integration is the norm, aside from its ease and encryption, I’m not sure long term, where Duo fits in. If the carriers allow inter-carrier video calling, how many will be willing to sacrifice privacy for ease of use?

But that’s a question for another day.

Back in today, overall, Duo does one thing and it does it pretty well. And easily, which means it might be the app that gets my auntie into video and when my little cousin is with her, I can make my stupid grownup faces and voices and entertain her.

Google Duo for Android
Google Duo for iOS