Hands on: The Google+ Android app is a winner

Google+ fans have an Android app they can use to keep up with their Circles

If you're a Google+ user with an Android smartphone or tablet, here's a simple piece of advice: Download the Google+ Android app right now. It's so well-designed, simple and straightforward to use, you would have thought that Google+ was designed to be a mobile service from the beginning.

(iPhone and iPad users now have their own app as well; check out "Google+ iPhone app: 5 things you need to know").

Google+ for Android
Google+ for Android home page

The home screen offers icons for all the most important parts of the service: Stream, Huddle, Photos, Profile and Circles. (Huddle is an extra that's not included in Google+'s Web interface; more about that in a moment.) Unfortunately, there is no Hangouts videoconferencing feature, which Google should consider adding in an upcoming version -- especially considering that many Android tablets and an increasing number of Android smartphones include a forward-facing camera for mobile videoconferencing.

Tap any of the icons and you'll come to a well-designed screen that manages to fit in most of Google+'s features without looking cramped. Tap Circles, for example, and you'll get a list of your circles; click on a circle and, by using tabs at the bottom of the screen, you can view a list of all the people in that circle, read all their posts or see their photos. You can also switch to a list of all of the people in all of your circles. An icon at the top lets you search for additional people to add to your circles. Viewing photos is similarly easy.

The heart of Google+, of course, is the stream of posts from people to whom you've connected. The Android app shows posts in a scrolling list, so it's easy to browse them -- you can read your entire stream or posts from a single circle. From the same screen you can also take a photo, create your own posts, and essentially do all the things you can in the Web-based version of Google+.

Extras for Android

The Android app even has a feature that the Google+ Web interface doesn't -- location awareness -- which shows that, in some ways, the Android app could end up being more useful than the Web-based service. When you're in your stream, you can choose to see posts only from people who are nearby you. It's surprisingly useful; in one series of posts a woman asked whether anyone near her had a bicycle pump for a specific type of wheel. Someone did and was able to help her, and the message stream ended up discussing good places for beginners to learn rock climbing in the area. It was an example of location-enabled social networking at its most useful.

Huddle is another feature not included in the Web-based version of Google+. It lets you have a conversation via texting with individuals or groups of people. You tap the Huddle icon and enter the name of the person (or people) you want to text; you can also add one or more circles (each huddle is limited to 50 people). People will get invitations to join. Then write your message and send it -- and let the discussion begin.

All this isn't to say the app is perfect. There's no clear global navigation -- when you're viewing your stream, for example, it's not easy to quickly get to your Circles area. Also, the capabilities of the app differ according to whether you're viewing posts in Stream view or in Circles view. When viewing in Circles, icons at the bottom let you see a list of all people in the circle, see all posts from the circle, and see photos from people in the circle. You can't do the same thing in the overall stream.

Another disappointment is that, as with many other Android apps, there's not tablet-specific app for Google+; you simply see a larger version of the smartphone app. The small displays on smartphones mean that you don't get the full sweep of Google+ capabilities in any one screen. For example, when you're looking at a person's profile on the Android app, you don't see thumbnails of the people you have in common with them or people in that person's circles, because there simply isn't enough space on a smartphone screen. There is sufficient real estate on a tablet, though, and it should be used.

In addition, tablets are ideal for videoconferencing, and a tablet version would be able to take advantage of that. Given that Google would like to promote the capabilities of Android tablets, as well as Google+, it would do well to release a tablet version.

Still, that's a small quibble. The Google+ Android app is a keeper. Any owner of an Android device who is a member of Google+ should download it right away.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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