Google Plus review

We've socially networked ourselves into Google's fancy new Facebook killer

Let's be honest: we hated Google Wave. If we're really, really honest, we didn't even understand Wave. No-one did.

Deep down, most people unlucky enough to access Google's first stab at a Facebook-stomping killer social network didn't know what the hell it was for. And even if they did, they had no idea how to use it. When it didn't freeze your browser into an immovable slab of ice, that is.

And while Wave befuddled the few uber-geeks who bothered to play with it, Facebook and Twitter took ownership of the masses, building hooks into every life, desktop and application.

Google+, currently in invite-only beta, is designed to destroy those awful Wave memories. Google+ is clean. It's smart. It has widgety Circles that you can waste hours creating and deleting again. And it will, in the coming months, attach itself like a limpet to every other Google service you use (including Picasa Web Albums and Google Search).

Armed with a rare invite, we've spent a day thrashing Google+ to within a few miles of its life. And our verdict? Google+ may just be good enough to make you go hunting for the Delete section of your Facebook or Twitter account – if, repeat if, the search giant continues to tweak the beta, and opens the toy soon to more users.

CIRCLES

The Google+ feature that's causing the biggest stir – you can create groups using a downright gorgeous dashboard, where dragging contacts from the top of the screen to cute blue Circles at the bottom becomes an addictive way to waste an hour or two in itself.

You can create as many Google+ Circles as you like, and call them anything you wish. Oh, and your contacts cannot see which Circles they're in (so don't worry about creating 'Morons I'd rather never meet again'), and each contact can be in multiple circles. And when you delete a Circle, it conjures a cute vanishing animation that'll have you deleting for the sake of it.

When you post something (photo, video, text, link), you can choose which of your Circles can see it, or whether it should be visible on the web.

Circles alone may be the party trick that finally allows Google to eat at Facebook's immense foundations (video chat or not video chat); the idea's clever, useful and beautifully realised. Assuming, of course, that the feature's mind-frying flexibility doesn't end up tying users up in knots.

STREAMS

Google+'s very own Facebook Newsfeed - the stuff being shared by the people in your circles, be it words, pictures, videos or links. In truth, the Google+ Streams are not as easy to scan-read as Newsfeed – although the Stream page itself is a clean enough design, the accent on comments can make it confusing to chew through at a single sitting.

One party trick we discovered during testing was that you can use the universal Google keyboard shortcuts for navigation: tapping 'j' and 'k' moves you on and back through Stream posts. And as you'd expect, you can link to or mute a post from within the Stream, or just block someone outright.

You can also filter Streams by Circles (Friends, Acquaintances, Morons I'd Rather I Never Met etc), although there's no other way to search or sort anything.

SPARKS

The Google+ newsfeed channel, which you fill either by choosing one of the pre-sets (cycling, fashion, films, football), or by running a search (and it auto-suggests categories as you type). It all works, too, although the end result is a rather sterile (albeit clean and usable) experience.

For now, it's easier to share a story from within Google+ than it is from the web – grabbing a story within Sparks to is as easy as hitting 'Share' (while sharing a story from the outside web means copying and pasting links into the Share box on Google's new universal tool bar).

If Google continues tweaking Sparks and Streams, it may have just invented the killer personalised news service. You can certainly imagine that Google Reader's days are numbered (or, as with Picasa, it gets absorbed into Plus).

HANGOUTS

The feature we really haven't had the chance to test. The idea's a cracker, however: it's live video conferencing meets Circles – invite people into the session, and away you go (assuming you have the Google Talk browser plug-in installed first).

PROFILES

Let's face it: this is all about you. It always is. And whether you choose to admit it or not, you will spend hours preening your new Google+ profile. But before you throw the kitchen sink at your shiny new property, take a few moments to consider the consequences: that fine control of permissions within Google+ demands that you think quite hard about which Circles (or the world at large) can see what.

Google knows that this is an issue, so has built in a 'View profile as…' search field – you can then check that Amanda in accounts can't see your worst indiscretions, posted in a moment of thoughtlessness.

The About section of the profile goes as deep as you'd want to go unless extremely drunk, right down to listing every place you've ever lived complete with a map.

The Photos tab includes a killer upload tool (just drag into your browser from your desktop), and the Google+ Photos section will soon be merged with Picasa Web Albums (we brought our 8GB photo archive over from Picasa during the period of the test – it took minutes, and carried over our permissions… although a bug that we hope is soon fixed meant that we couldn't change who could see the photos once imported into Google+).

The Videos tab shows no sign of merging with your YouTube account, although someone at Google HQ must be scratching their chin over the issue.

There's also a +1 tab, Google's own go at creating a Delicious bookmarking service.

Click the '+1' button next to any Google search return, and the link appears on your profile's +1 tab. And in case you were wondering, your +1s aren't visible to the world at large, and you can delete them. However, as of today, there's no way to quickly search or categorise your bookmarks, limiting the +1 feature's usefulness beyond reminding yourself of a recent search session.

MOBILE

As of the time of writing, we hadn't tested the Google+ Android App, although screenshots suggest that it's simple and easy to use. There's also an iOS App on the way (rumour is that it was submitted to the App Store some days ago, so may even be released by the time you read this).

There's also a web app, accessible simply by pointing your browser at a mobile Google+ address. It worked extremely well on our iPhone 4, although the lack of integration with such delights as the iPhone's camera limited its usefulness. And the pages themselves flickered during transitions; we can't be sure if this is a bug in Google+, or something awry with our iPhone 4.

THE VERDICT

Google+ is good. Actually, it's more than good – there are aspects that are plain brilliant (Circles being the shiniest of its baubles…).

But social networking's a game of numbers, connections and ease of input. Google will know if Plus can float in the next few weeks; it needs to open the beta sooner rather than later (right now, the window to send invites to others only appears late at night for a few hours), and make sharing what's in your head much easier (think of the number of ways you can now post to Twitter).

Also

Need to Know – Google+ social network project

Google+ awaits Apple approval

Google Plus guide – things you didn't know

Can Google Plus topple Facebook?

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is most liked person on Google Plus

Poll – Will you use Google+?

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