At midnight on May 25, 2013 Google released the new Hangouts Feature in GMail, at least for me. Other than the old chat only having text and the possibility for voice and video calls, Hangouts adds a few nice new features. If you would like to try the new Hangouts, you don't need Google Plus setup, all you need is a Google Account and GMail since that is where the client resides. Also if you want to use video calls you will need to install the plugin onto your computer.
Appearing is nearly everything in web applications. If it is designed well users will use it. It will be easy to navigate and intuitive. Users sadly won't give you more than a few minutes to figure it out. But luckily for Google, they did a good job on the new design. The names on the sidebar are much larger and "blocky". Users are are online have a green bar under their profile picture. The profile pictures are to the left of their name, and most recent message. The sidebar chat does affect your labels though. Your labels will be hidden unless hovered over the "trigger" to expand the list.
The new chat popup that appears on the bottom from right to left has a large indicating area for new messages that flashes green fading colors. It isn't distracting but will get your attention when you do get a new message. The chat is also expandable inside of the browser. The corners of the chat inset popup allow you to drag and expand the window. This is a requirement that they had to put into place with some of the new features we will cover next. Under the top bar of the chat for each user, the bottom of the bar has a green border to indicate if they are still online. If the chat is collapsed though, you will not be able to tell if they are online without looking at the sidebar or opening the chat. Along with the green notification border, you have minimize button which is fairly useless since anywhere you click on the top bar collapse it. But it is good to have to assist people and letting them know they can collapse the chat to the footer. They also have popup chat to an independent window and a close button. Further down a bit (one row), they have Video Chat icon, Add People to Chat, and Settings.
The New Features
A large set of new features were added and every single one of them I plan on using or have already used outside of testing. The largest new feature is Pictures in Chat and Emoji. When talking to your friends stop posting links to pictures and just send it directly to them for them to see directly in the chat. In the area you enter text to send, to the right there is a picture icon. Clicking it will bring up a window (inside the current window) to Upload Pictures, Browse your Currently Uploaded photos, your Google Plus Albums, Video Search and Web Cam. These picture options do require you to have Google Plus though. If you don't have Google Plus all of these features will be disabled, but you can still receive pictures you are sent. The Video Search feature sends the thumbnail of the video along with a YouTube link to the video. Having it embedded would be a nice feature that I bet will be created as an extension soon enough (and if not I will make it). You can select multiple photos to send, but they send right after each other and not in an "Album" view or Slide Show view. So if you select 3-4 photos it could be a little overwhelming seeing most chat windows are kept small.
If pictures aren't so much your thing but you still need to show emotion you can. With the "emoji" icons you can access to the left of the chat text field. There are 5 categories of icons including your normal Face Icons, Product Icons (vectors), "Cute" icons including Animals, "Object" icons including Cars and Houses, and then a general "shapes" category with astrology signs, arrows, clocks and a lot of other miscellaneous items. I don't see any options to disable these icons from being received in your chat, but assuming you only talk to your friends and family it shouldn't be too much of an issue. These icons can be used by Google Plus and non Google Plus users.
Are you making plans to hang out with some friends? Well invite them into the chat so all of you can chat in a single place at the same time. This was one thing the old chat was really missing out on. Google always had a way for more than 2 people to work together such with Documents, Drive, even the discontinued Google Wave had this option.
A not new feature, but still a good feature is the video chat option you can jump into right from your browser after installing the required plugin. I have not had a chance to test this out but you can bet it works similar to the previous version or the Google Plus video hangouts you are use to.
There is now a cog settings icon that we mentioned previously that includes some options to more easily alter the chat that doesn't make you search. You can disable notifications for specific users so you won't get an audio or blinking alert. Also for people you can pick if you want to save the chat in the history or not. Along with not saving the hangout you can Archive it, Delete It, and block the person you are talking to all from this Settings Menu that opens up inside the current chat window.
I feel like Google is really making Google Plus a service that people will use for its tools and not because it is forced. All though I am still upset of some of the ways Google forces Google Plus, I am very glad I have Google Plus for all of these new chat features.