Softphones Reviewed: Google Talk (Beta)

First released in August of 2005, Google‘s instant messaging and voice application, Google Talk, is still officially in beta and is focused far more heavily on instant messaging than on voice—but as a product of the Internet’s 800-pound gorilla, it’s certainly worth checking out.

Google Talk is currently only available for Windows XP/2000, though the company says versions are in the works for both Mac OS and Linux. It’s a fast 900k download, and it’s extremely simple to install. The only noticeable annoyance about the setup process is that it defaults to launching the program every time you start your computer—but that can easily be changed in the Settings.

To get started with Google Talk, you need a Gmail user name and password. The process involved in getting one is, unfortunately, convoluted—you either need an invitation from a current Gmail user, or you need to be able to accept and validate an SMS code that Google sends to your mobile phone. Both seem like unnecessary barriers to the initial sign-up process.

Still, once you’ve signed up for an account and installed the Google Talk application, all you have to do is enter your Gmail user name and password to log in and get started. Google Talk and Gmail are tightly integrated with each other, allowing you to access your Gmail contacts through Google Talk and to access basic chat functionality directly through the Gmail Web interface.

The company is tight-lipped about the future of Google Talk, though mobility is clearly a key aspect of Google’s plans, as evidenced by the introduction of a new version of Nokia’s 770 Wi-Fi Internet Tablet earlier this year that comes pre-loaded with Google Talk.

The user interface
The Google Talk interface is clean, Skype-like and eminently user-friendly. The bulk of the interface is dedicated to a list of your Gmail contacts, with a colored ball next to their name if they have Google Talk installed—a green ball means they’re available, yellow means idle, red means busy, and grey means offline. The interface also makes it very easy to control your own availability with a drop-down menu.

Prod interface

With the automatic integration of your Gmail contacts, it’s easy to chat with other users, either through Google Talk or directly through the Gmail Web interface. You can only make voice calls if the other users also have Google Talk set up and have added you as a friend, at which point a small green handset symbol appears next to their name. Until then, an e-mail icon is shown next to their name instead.

You can chat (i.e. instant message) with as many people as you like at once, and you can send an e-mail directly from Google Talk by clicking on the e-mail icon. From within the interface, you can record all chat sessions, taking them “off record” and “on record” at will—and the transcribed sessions can then be accessed from the Chat folder of your Gmail Web interface.

Support for the application comes in the form of a basic online knowledgebase with search functionality, as well as a relatively active user forum. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in either of those places, you can also contact Google directly through a Web form.

The voice experience
Again, this is an interface that’s focused much more heavily on e-mail and text chat than on voice. Despite the wide variety of options for chat and e-mail, Google Talk currently only allows users to maintain a voice call with one other person at a time—to start another call, you have to put the first one on hold. At this point, there’s no conference calling and no PSTN calling available.

Still, it’s perfectly viable as a voice client, and integration with devices like the Nokia 770 may well make it increasingly popular over time. As with all other VoIP services, your sound quality can vary widely depending on equipment you’re using. While Google Talk’s sound quality is generally comparable to that of its competition, we did notice some fading and interference during test calls.

An interesting subtext to the Google Talk story is the fact that the solution is based on open standards, with XMPP allowing Google Talk users to interact directly with users of other platforms like Gizmo Project or EarthLink. In the future, the company says, Google Talk will also support SIP.

That kind of interoperability is important to Google. As the company states in its Google Talk FAQ, “While we hope many people will use and like the Google Talk client, we’re also committed to making it as easy as possible for you to communicate with your friends using the client that you want—even if it doesn’t happen to be ours.”

Also from the FAQ: “Google Talk is still in beta, and we’re working hard to add features and make improvements. We’re just not quite ready yet to reveal the other cool things we’ve got planned.” With this promising a start, it will certainly be interesting to see where the future leads.

[Given the product’s currently modest aspirations and its official beta status, we have elected not to assign ratings as we have with officially released softphones.]

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