Google Duo review: When video calls are this simple, I will surely use them more

Of the two communication apps that Google announced at I/O, Duo surely seemed like the less interesting one. Video calls have been done again and again, and by now, if you have someone you want to talk to and see at the same time, odds are you already have your preferred way of doing that. But my last few days with Duo have shown me another side to the story. Duo isn’t trying to revolutionize video calls, it just wants to approach them from a more modern perspective, one that builds on our smartphone-carrying habits, our needs for immediacy, and our disdain for complexity.

With just a couple of calls, Duo has proven to me that it can replace Skype on my phone and maybe even tempt me to use it instead of WhatsApp audio calls with certain friends. Not because I need to see them while I chat with them, but because the simplicity is there and it’s enough to make me think twice before opening either app.

But Duo isn’t yet without its faults or missing features. Audio-only or group video calls aren’t yet possible, there’s no web or desktop client, no multi-device support, and no way to share what’s on your screen for example instead of what you see with your cameras.

But even though these seemed like deal-breakers to me when the app was announced, after using it for a few days, I’d argue that they’re secondary features to what Duo is trying to be: an instantaneous way for you to get in touch with someone else as if you were near them. If I dare say it, it’s the millennial’s (shivers) approach to video calls. Once that foundation is built and trust is gained with users, I’m sure Duo will start adding more traditional options and filling the gaps for a more demanding user base.

All you need is a phone number

Simplicity is the name of the game with Duo and that starts with the setup. Once you’ve installed the app, all you have to do is agree to a couple of permission requests if you’re running Android 6.0 Marshmallow or above, then type your phone number. A verification SMS will be sent to your phone – these were not working worldwide the first day, but now appear to be – and Duo should be smart enough to pick up the code from the SMS and input it inside the app. If not, you can always do it manually.

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That’s it. Once the code is there, you’re inside and looking at your own sexy (or not) face through the front camera window.

If you’ve ever used WhatsApp, you’ll quickly spot the similarities. Duo doesn’t require usernames or passwords, not on your end nor on your friends’. All you need to contact someone on Duo is their phone number, which more often than not you already have for all the people you might want to video call.

Part of what made WhatsApp so popular as a messaging client, and then again as a VoIP alternative, was the low-entry barrier (plus free price and multiplatform support). If you wanted to send an SMS to someone, you must have had their phone number, which meant you could also contact them via WhatsApp — and for free. The same applied later for phone calls.

Duo is using this same low-entry barrier for video calls. Compared to Facetime, Skype, Hangouts, and many other services, setup is faster and simpler, and usage afterward is more straightforward. And yes phone numbers might be ripe for abuse and spam, but so are usernames and email addresses.

Simplicity carries through the interface

Duo consists of very few screens and menus. I’d wager the reason is that Google wanted to do less, but do it better. And it works.

Launch the app and you’re greeted with your face from the front camera on your phone (we’ve already established it might not be sexy), a white bottom overlay with a Video call button, and an overflow menu on the top right. Once you’ve made a couple of calls, the bottom overlay will start populating with your most recent contacts.

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The white overlay populates with recent contacts. (You can’t see me now, but you will in a while.)

If you’re a geek like me, the first thing you’ll look for are the settings. They’re nested in the overflow menu, along with Help and Feedback, and there aren’t many. You can set the phone to vibrate or not when receiving a call, limit mobile data usage, unregister your phone number in case you’re switching numbers or don’t want to use Duo anymore, see and manage your blocked numbers, and activate one of Duo’s unique features: Knock Knock. This basically shares the caller’s video stream before the recipient answers the call, as a way to entice them to pick up the phone.

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Thankfully, Knock Knock doesn’t work for contacts you don’t have in your address book – a nice way to avoid unsolicited images from people you don’t know. And it can also be disabled, but keep in mind that if you turn it off, you won’t send your stream to your contacts but you also won’t get theirs when they call, regardless of whether or not they have it enabled or disabled.

Back to the main interface, once you tap on Video call, you’re served a list of your contacts with Duo already installed, followed by all those who don’t have it yet and whom you can invite. Tap on a contact and you’re instantly calling them.

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I can call Artem, na-na-na!

If you have Knock Knock activated, the front cam will launch before the call is answered and start streaming to your contact.

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You don’t tell me what to do, Google. I’ll smile or smirk or do whatever expression I want!

Once the call launches, like any video calling service, your front camera view switches to a small window and the rest of your screen is overtaken by your recipient’s stream. Duo’s calling interface only shows a couple of buttons overlaid in circles on top of each other on the bottom left:

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My fiancé looks like Donald Duck sometimes. So I made him talk to Winnie the Pooh ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  • A Bluetooth icon that will only show up if you’re using a Bluetooth headset.
  • A camera switch button that rotates between the front and back camera on your phone, so you can show your contact your face or whatever is in front of you. It’s worth noting that on phones with dual cameras on the back, like the LG G5, you’ll be able to also switch between them, thus offering 3 viewfinder options to share.
  • A mute button if you need to say something or talk to someone without your contact hearing it. Handy for sneezes and coughs, if you ask me.
  • Your own camera’s viewfinder window, which you can tap to switch screen estate between you and your recipient for a bit. That’s perfect if you’re too self absorbed, you need to readjust the angle to show something specific… or your friend just told you you have a zit on your cheek and you need to check that out.

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Left: Switching screen estates to check out my cute face. Right: Mute is on, I’ll scream all I want, Donald will not hear me.

And there’s obviously a red button to end the call in the middle bottom of the screen.

If you’re on the receiving end of a Duo call, you’ll see the recipient before picking up if you both have Knock Knock enabled, and Duo will also show you which network it’s currently using for its call. If you fail to answer, a missed call notification will appear on your phone and let you either call back or message (SMS) the person back.

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Excuse me, my fiancé Donald Duck is calling me. It’s rude not to answer.

While using the app, I’ve found this interface intuitive and quite easy to get used to. Duo might not do more than one-on-one video calls, but it has implemented the essentials of that pretty well with mute, multiple camera support, and even a viewfinder switch to let you gaze upon yourself for a while if you need to.

The video call that doesn’t disconnect

Duo prides itself on two important features: adaptability to your connection speed (the quality of the stream drops if you’re on a slow connection) and seamless transition between WiFi and data networks. To achieve the latter, you’ll see that Duo activates both WiFi and data immediately every time the app is opened, to make sure that the latter is already connected and ready should the WiFi signal drop. And both features work as expected.

Now you may tell me that most of my screenshots in this post have a rather bad resolution. What gives, Rita? How can Duo be so good when most of what you’re seeing are pixelated images? Well, those are not a testament to how bad Duo is, but quite the contrary, they prove just how good the app is at keeping the call going regardless of how poor the connection is.

See, I’m residing in my mountain house now, where reception is beyond terrible: even WhatsApp text messages take more than 10 seconds to deliver sometimes. The WiFi connection you see my phone using here is a MiFi router, so it suffers from the same piss-poor reception as my HSDPA signal, which you may have seen revert back to Edge sometimes. I would never dare start a Skype or Hangouts video call here because I’m 1000% sure it will either not connect or it will disconnect in the first 5 seconds. Even WhatsApp voice calls are often choppy, suffering from 2-3 seconds lag and frequently cutting off and disconnecting.

Duo, however, surprised me. Not only was it able to connect, it also kept the call going against all odds. When the connection speed got bad, it reduced the resolution of the incoming video stream, when it got even worse, it slowly greyed out the video and paused it but kept the audio going, and when I got far away from my MiFi router, it switched to a data connection instead without dropping the call.

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I walked around the house from areas with mediocre connectivity to areas with quasi-null reception, turned on and off the MiFi router several times, and the call kept going despite it all. Whether with video or without, on WiFi or data, it made sure that at least the voice call almost never stopped. I did notice a couple of voice cut-offs, but they never lasted more than a second, an impressive feat for the torture I was putting Duo through. Only once in my signal reception distress session did the call drop, but Duo initiated reconnection and managed to swiftly get back on track without me even touching my phone.

That’s fantastic for a first version release and it’s the reason why I’ve already uninstalled Skype — I only used it for one-on-one calls with a few contacts — and I’m also considering switching to Duo for some friends instead of WhatsApp voice calls. I don’t have to worry about the connection speed and I can rest assured that if the connection can’t carry the video through, it’ll pause it and revert to audio-only to keep the call going. So why not use it?

Bugs, privacy, missing features

Just a couple of bugs

In my time with Duo, I only encountered two bugs, which counts as a positive for a first release. One, the contacts list will sometimes get stuck showing only a few (three) of my Duo contacts instead of everyone who has already enabled the app (more than 10) — for the others, I have to manually search for the name to reach them. Second, the video call image once switched to a weird inverted photo of myself talking to myself… callception if you will, before it completely greyed out and paused the video.

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What is that?!

Duo understands that you might face some issues, so from time to time, it’ll ask you to rate your call and tell the team if something went wrong. It can also send call diagnostics back to them so they can better identify the issue.

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Encryption and phone number privacy

Privacy is more and more of a concern nowadays, so you should be happy knowing that Duo calls are all end-to-end encrypted. Where Google’s other communication app, Allo, will only offer that for private chats but not by default for all conversations, Duo doesn’t need any sorcery working in the background to serve you relevant information (Google Assistant) so it can be, and is, completely private.

The only “issue” arises from the use of phone numbers in Duo. You may get unsolicited calls from people who are just dialing random numbers, but that can also happen if the system uses email addresses or usernames to identify people. (And you can always block callers if you don’t want to talk to them.) You may also not feel comfortable divulging your phone number to someone, but Duo is clearly not marketing itself as a way to video chat with strangers or to do business calls. It’s for your friends and family, ie people who should already have your number.

Plenty of missing features

As I said in the intro, Duo is still lacking a lot of features. Even though it can clearly pause video and switch to an audio-only call when connection is poor, there’s no way to manually start an audio-only call — that might be coming soon though. Group video calls aren’t yet possible either, so you’ll have to rely on Hangouts or Skype for that, or resolve to talking to just one person. And you can’t switch to a screen recording instead of a camera view, so you can’t share what’s on your phone instead of what’s in front of it.

Duo is also missing a web/desktop client, and its reliance on a phone number to activate means that your account is limited to one device. If you have an LTE tablet, it’ll be using another phone number and thus running another account that your contacts may not have. If you have a WiFi-only tablet, you can’t use Duo on it. But if I was a betting person, I’d wager that the Duo team is already hard at work figuring out the best way to keep the phone number simplicity and privacy, and yet implement multiple device support.

Video calling as a commodity

If you’re looking at the list of missing features and nodding your head thinking that Duo is definitely not for you, then you’ve almost surely grown up at a time when video calls were different. If you associate them with Skype, then video calls either mean a scheduled business meeting to you with at least a dress shirt (we all know you’re not wearing any pants/skirt below the desk), or you’re used to sitting in front of your computer combing your hair and waiting for your family or partner to call at a pre-approved time.

Duo goes against all of this. It’s not about preparedness and scheduling, but immediacy and intimacy. It’s about the now and sharing this moment, with all of its imperfections: the zits on your face, the wrinkled t-shirt, the messy kitchen, the weird scene unfolding in front of you, etc… and also all of its awesomeness: the beautiful view in front of you, the blabbers of your newborn, the silliness of your friends, and so on.

So it’s easy to see why Duo doesn’t do more than this — it doesn’t need to. (Not now at least.) It’s built for a different mindset and to satisfy a different need. Duo wants video calls to be spontaneous and within everyone’s reach, it wants their experience to be so frictionless that you think of them as an alternative to voice calls and text messages. It’s basically built from the ground-up for the smartphone age, not the computer age, and that makes all the difference between what Duo is and what video calls used to be.