Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends
It seems like ages ago that Google took the wraps off Duo, a video chat app for Android that eschews bells and whistles for a bare bones, FaceTime-like focus on person-to-person video. Months after an unveiling at the company’s I/O Developer Conference in June, you can now download Duo on the Play Store for Android and the App Store on iOS. But was it worth the wait?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Duo has arrived essentially as what was promised in May, which is arguably a good thing — Google hasn’t strayed from its vision of a trimmed-down, cross-platform video chat app. But whether it’ll be enough to satisfy the sky-high expectations that have grown around its fabled development will depend largely on what folks are hoping to use it to do.
First things first: Duo isn’t like Snapchat. Rather than adopt self-destructing video messaging made popular by Snapchat, Instagram, and others, Google has opted to hark back to a mobile era when real-time video was the bee’s knees of mobile. The app evokes Apple’s FaceTime in its simplicity: install it, launch it, and you’ll find yourself confronted with little else but a welcome screen. It quickly becomes apparent that with Duo, Google wanted to do one thing — video — exceptionally well. And it has.
Setup is perhaps the quickest of any chat app we’ve used. You enter your phone number, and then wait for Google to text you a verification code. After you’ve copied said code and subsequently entered it, you’re good to go — there aren’t any email confirmation messages to juggle, no passwords to remember, and there’s no need to associate your Facebook or Google credentials with your account.
Starting a chat is just as easy. Tap a big, circular, stylized button labeled “Video call” and you’re confronted with a list of contacts. Select one, and, assuming they’ve confirmed their number via Duo, they’ll receive a call almost immediately. Those who don’t aren’t on Duo will receive a text message invitation to join, instead. Once they answer it, the session begins.
In our tests, Duo chats went off without a hitch. That’s thanks in part to the technical foundation on which Duo is built: WebRTC, or Web real-time communication. It provides native support for video chatting without the need for plugins or third-party applications, so performance is consistent across platforms. It features adaptive streaming that automatically adjusts stream quality on the fly, as needed. It can even pull a magic trick: seamless video chat hand-off between Wi-Fi and cellular connections. In our time with Duo, it all worked flawlessly — and almost instantaneously. We could see our chat partners perfectly clearly and without interruption. We experienced only a momentary stutter when we disabled Wi-Fi in favor of 4G. In our tests, quality was at least on par with Skype and FaceTime — both of which took a few milliseconds longer than Duo to connect our voice calls.