Google Hangouts is doing well, in spite of its slow start and continued jostle with the likes of Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook’s Messenger. It even has a nice web app now.
What’s more interesting is that it has several useful hidden features that promise to make chatting and video calling smoother and more fun for you. We’ll show you what you can do with them.
Note: Depending on the Google+ version that you’re using, some features might appear in different locations than those listed here.
Add Hats and Mustaches
Let’s begin with how you can have a costume party online. What could be more important than that?
To begin, you’ll need to install the Google Effects extension for Hangouts, which you can do only if you have a Google+ profile. Assuming you have one, when you start (or join) a video call, you’ll see a “more” icon (three horizontal dots) to the left in the call window. Hover over it and click on the Add apps button that appears.
In the grid of apps that comes up, look for Google Effects and click on its Install Hangouts extension button. (Come back to this section later to install other interesting apps.)
Once the Effects extension gets installed, you’ll see an icon for it on the left and a new Effects panel on the right. That panel is where all the fun begins. It has a selection of headwear, backgrounds, eyewear, etc. that you can overlay on your face in the call window. Don’t let the limited selection of effects disappoint you. It’s a chance to get creative!
Make the Most of a Slow Internet Connection
Don’t have enough bandwidth to spare for a high-quality video call? You might want to take advantage of Google’s bandwidth restriction feature. Look for the “signal” icon (four vertical lines of increasing height) at the top in a call window and click on it.
You’ll then see a slider that allows you to lower the bandwidth setting or rather the call quality from its default mode (Auto HD) all the way down to Audio Only. The latter is best for super slow connections, and also for pretending to be an attentive listener when you’re really looking at funny cat Tumblrs on the side.
If you’re on a newer version of Google+, you’ll find the bandwidth setting in a different location. To bring it up, first click on the “gear” icon toward the top right in the call window, and in the popup box that appears, switch to the Bandwidth tab. If you’d like to get back the older interface described above, click on the “more” icon (three vertical dots) at the top right and select Original version from the fly-out menu that appears.
Let Google Bots Translate Conversations for You
If you want a quick translation in the midst of a Hangouts conversation, you have a slew of Google’s minions at your service. They’re called translation bots or chat bots. They’ll come in handy if you want to, say, get online tutoring to learn a new language, or connect with an international fan base as an artist.
Depending on the languages that you want to translate back and forth from, you’ll need to add specific bots to group conversations. The names of these bots follow a certain pattern: [from language]2[to language]@bot.talk.google.com.
So if you want a translation from French to English, you’ll have to add the bot email@example.com by clicking on the icon next to the “video call” icon. Once you do that, the bot takes care of translating your chats from French to English automatically.
For English to French translation, you’ll have to add firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s a list of all the translation bots that are available to you. You can also add a bot to your contact list and send it the text you want translated.
The translation feature did not work for me at all, most likely because it isn’t available in India yet. Give it a shot and tell us how it worked out for you.
Say It Better with Formatting
If you need to highlight a word or a phrase in the middle of your Hangouts conversation, feel free to use the formatting shortcuts that you use in other apps: Ctrl + B for emphasizing text, Ctrl + I for italicizing text, and Ctrl + U for underlining text. They work just fine. If you’re a macOS user, be sure to replace the Ctrl key with the Command key in these shortcuts.
Talk in Doodles
My friend's Google Hangout doodles make me feel completely and utterly inadequate in all ways pic.twitter.com/C8S5MGtEAh
— Damon Beres (@dlberes) March 12, 2015
If you’d rather chat using hand-drawn smiley faces and weird doodles instead of plain old text, here’s what you can do. First hover over the square Attach a photo icon at the bottom right in a chat window. Next, click on the tiny “pencil” icon that appears right next to it.
You’ll now see a blank square box with a set of brush and color options at the top. That’s your canvas for doodlespeak in Hangouts. You can draw stuff there and send it, and the recipient can edit your doodle or respond with a fresh one. Each edit appears as a new image recorded in your conversation.
Tip: If you want to draw a straight line, hold down the Shift key when you’re drawing.
Take Convos off the Record
By default, Google saves all your chat conversations and you can reread them anytime. They also end up under the Chats label in your Gmail. You can tell Google to stop saving your chat history for specific conversations, both individual and group based.
To go off the record for a particular conversation, first open its chat window and click on the Options button — it’s the “gear” icon right beneath the chat window’s Close button. Now uncheck the box corresponding to Hangout history and click on the Ok button.
Going forward, any messages you add to that conversation stay in the chat window for a short period of time, and they might disappear before the recipient(s) checks them. For example, if they’re offline at the time.
You can go back to the Options section anytime and select the Hangout history checkbox to start saving your chat again.
Note that your messages may still get recorded if the person at the other end of the conversation uses a chat client that does not support/honor off-the-record conversations. Google says so.
Hire a Gatekeeper to Screen Who Can Contact You
If you get inane/irrelevant messages from random people, you don’t have to sit and fume over them. Just tweak the settings for invites and let only select people contact you. You’ll find those settings under More > Settings > Customize invite settings. There, select the radio button next to Customized.
Now, if you don’t have a Google+ account, you have just three dropdown menus to deal with. One for the people who have your phone number, one for those who have your email address, and the third for everyone else.
For the first two types of people, you can choose if they can contact you directly or can just send an invite (which will need your acceptance, of course). You can keep out anyone who doesn’t belong to either of these two categories by selecting the Can’t send invites option from the Everyone else dropdown menu.
If you do have a Google+ account, you get finer control over who can and can’t contact you based on your Circles. In this case, you’ll want to go through each of the dropdown menus one by one. That’s because by default, anybody in any of your circles can contact you directly even if the Everyone else option we mentioned above is set to Can’t send invites.
Give Orders from the Keyboard with Chat Commands
If you prefer keystrokes over mouse clicks, you’ll want to memorize Hangouts chat commands that will let you do things like:
- Mute (unmute) the audio of the caller – /mute (/unmute)
- Send inline private messages – /to [user][message]
- Speak in third person – /me [message]
Want to see what else you can do with chat commands? Bring up the entire list of commands by typing in /help or /? (followed by pressing Enter) in the chat window when you’re in a call. To bring up the chat window, click on the blue “talk” icon at the top left.
Sandwiched between the circular Video Call and Message buttons on your Hangouts homepage is the Phone Call button. It allows you to place calls to phones across the world, with one major caveat thrown in — calling is available in select locations. As a user from India, I can make calls to all countries, but not to locations within India.
When you click on the Phone Call button, Google brings up a search box where you can type in a phone number or the name of one of your contacts to call them. If you’re placing an international call, click on the tiny flag icon to the left of the search box to pick the right country code.
Let’s talk calling rates now. If Hangouts calling is available in your country, you can call almost all numbers in the US and Canada for free. If you have a Google Voice account, you can even receive calls via Hangouts.
Calling specific phone numbers will incur charges. You can look these up beforehand from the calling credit page for your Google account and add credit for them if necessary.
Unable to make a call? Can’t see the Phone Call feature at all? This Hangouts Help page can tell you what’s wrong.
Have Some Animated Fun
Want to see a bunch of ponies run across the active chat window? Type in /ponystream and hit Enter. And there they are. To make them disappear, type in /ponystream again. That’s not the only animation Hangouts is hiding beneath the hood. Try these words to bring up more animations: /ponies, /shydino, /pitchforks.
There’s also /bikeshed, if you want to change the background of the chat window to a different color. Ended up with a background the color of puke? Keep typing in /bikeshed till you get a color you like, or reopen the chat window to switch to the default, pale gray background. You might also want to type these text emoji and see what turns up: V.v.V, :(:), 🙁 ), ~@~.
If you’re lucky, typing in happy birthday!!! should also work, and woohoo!!, woot!!!, and yay!!! as well. The trick is to add at least a couple of exclamation points at the end of those trigger words. These animations have stopped working on my computer though.
What Has Your Hangouts Experience Been Like?
If all you do on Google Hangouts is join calls or leave them, it’s time to you explored the non-vanilla side of Hangouts!
What do you use Google Hangouts for? Which of its many secrets do you think are worth knowing? We’d love to hear how you use Hangouts.
Image Credits:Ready to connect by Everett Collection via Shutterstock