Google Duo is like FaceTime but more fun

We tried Duo, Google's Facetime competitor
We tried Duo, Google's Facetime competitor

Google thinks it can make a better FaceTime app.

The company launched a free new video calling service called Duo on Tuesday that's not unlike Apple (AAPL, Tech30)'s native video calling app. But it comes with a few bells and whistles to help the app stand out.

The name Duo comes from Google's desire to focus on one-to-one video calling. That's why there is no group calling function -- something Google Hangouts originally made famous.

But Duo allows users to make calls between iOS and Android devices -- something FaceTime can't do. It also excels in a few other areas, such as its user interface and the overall quality of calls.

Let's take a closer look at the new app.

See yourself (and the other person) before the call begins

google duo gif
Google Duo lets people see who's calling them before they respond.

Duo opens with a split-screen view of your front-facing camera and a group of recently dialed contacts -- it lets you see what you look like even before you place a call.

This is important because as soon as you dial a contact's number, they'll get a sneak peek of you in real time, even if they decide not to answer. Google (GOOG) calls this optional feature "Knock Knock," and it acts like a digital peephole.

Knock Knock intends to give the receiver time to prep before picking up. Although Android users will be able to see this video preview on the lock screen, iPhone users will have to tap "Preview" first or be in the app.

Take up to a minute to pick up

Not sure if you want to pick up or are in another room? Duo will ring your phone for up to a minute before it gives up. When we tested this, FaceTime rang a recipient for about half that time.

Give the caller your undivided attention

Duo promises a more crisp experience than other video messaging platforms, and during CNNMoney's testing of the app over a cellular connection, it delivered on those claims.

Google's app also puts less emphasis on you during calls, so it's easier to pay more attention to the other person. Duo shrinks the selfie view and docks it on the bottom left corner of the screen. When using FaceTime, we had a greater tendency to look at ourselves via the selfie screen, which was more prominently placed in the top right corner.

google duo vs facetime

There are other features that reinforce giving the other person undivided attention, too. For example, there's no way to pick up another call if one comes through. Instead, Google sends them a message saying you're unavailable. When you've hung up, you'll get a notification highlighting the missed call.

While this might be inconvenient if you're expecting another call, it's nice to know you can't be interrupted.

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Once a chat is underway, the Duo vs. FaceTime experiences are more similar. Like FaceTime, Duo only has three options: mute audio, switch between front- and back-facing cameras, and ending the call.

There are no stickers, doodling options or additional messaging features compared to what's available on Snapchat. You won't find a time stamp either that indicates how long a call has been going on, even after you hang up.

The lack of a time stamp may seem like a random omission, but Google says it is a part of the company's plan to make Duo as simple as possible. The team was "almost maniacal" about that goal, Nick Fox, Google's VP of Communications Products, told CNNMoney last week.

"We think lack of clutter is important," said Fox.

Switch between Wi-Fi and cellular connections

Google also says it spent a lot of time figuring out how to reduce the number of dropped video calls.

The app adjusts video quality depending on network speeds and can transition from Wi-Fi to cellular connections without disconnecting conversations. We were able to do so with ease, but it's key to note the video portion pauses until the transition is set.

Related: Google takes on Echo and Siri with 'Home' and an assistant

Duo was one of two new messaging services announced earlier this year at Google's developer conference. The second -- Allo, a dedicated text messaging app -- is expected to launch in a few weeks.

"We think of them kind of as companion apps," Fox said. "We thought we could build the best video calling app by focusing only on video."

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