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Google Allo review: Google's Allo messenger app is a know-it-all

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Does the world need another messaging app? Google says yes. And it believes its Allo messaging app is different enough to compete against Apple's iMessage, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and all the rest. That's because it's the first to include Google Assistant, which I can only describe as a mega chatbot that uses artificial intelligence to bring you answers in a conversational manner.

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Google Allo

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The Good

Google Allo is available on both Android and iOS, and features a digital Assistant that fetches information for you in a conversational way. Its Incognito Mode erases conversations and has end-to-end encryption.

The Bad

Allo doesn't integrate video calling, and it doesn't have as many features as its competitors, like baked-in GIF support or control over read receipts.

The Bottom Line

It's not a perfect communications app on Day 1, but the integrated, all-knowing Google Assistant bot sets Allo apart from the messaging competition.

Available as a free download today on Android and iOS, Allo was first introduced during Google I/O in conjunction with Google's web-calling app Duo (which, since launching a month ago, has now reached 10 million downloads on Android).

Though it sends and receives messages as well as the others, Allo has its own promising features that I found useful. Read on to see what makes Allo stand out and if it has what it takes to be your new chat app.

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Google Assistant: The ultimate bot

Allo's standout feature is Google Assistant, which is basically a bot you can chat with that uses Google's vast search database to answer several kinds of questions you throw its way. For example, you can type, "Cafes nearby?" and it will find popular coffee shops in your area (just make sure you have location turned on). You can ask it to translate phrases in different languages, show your latest emails, look up airfare prices and other common queries.

If you're feeling particularly playful (or lonely), you can play games with it too. (The geography quiz game is educational, but I particularly like the one where you have to guess the movie based only on emojis.)

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Assistant confirming sports scores (left) and fetching movie times (right).

Lynn La/CNET

If you're not already in Allo, it's faster to press the home button and relay questions to Apple's Siri or Google's other digital assistant, Google Now. But Assistant does come in handy when the app is open in front of you (plus you can still ask it questions verbally), and you want to look something up without leaving.

This is especially useful when you're in a group chat. A search for "popular bars" shows results to everyone on the chat thread, so the group can plan from there. Allo can settle debates, too -- like when you and your friend can't remember what last night's sports score was or when a particular movie came out. Assistant will immediately put the issue to rest, in writing.

Smart Reply: Never at a loss for words

Smart Replies are generic responses that pop up above the keyboard and text field. Though the replies are canned (for example, autogenerated responses to the question, "Are you busy?" include "What's up?" "Not really, you?" and, "Yes. Why?"), they can be quite colloquial and somewhat natural-sounding time-savers.

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A generic string of Smart Replies (left) and Allo recognizing a photo's content (right).

Lynn La/CNET

This is a little unnerving since you're never quite sure if the responses you receive are authentic or just a Smart Reply. The phrases also feel pretty inane if you try to form a full conversation with them (replying to a conversation formed completely from Smart Reply started to feel like chatting with the SmarterChild bot circa 2001). However, they are useful when you're on the go and have to quickly respond, or you just don't have the brainpower to trudge through online small talk. Just don't try and use it for more sensitive, serious conversations.

Smart Replies aren't limited to text either. When you send over a photo, Allo can recognize the subject matter and call up responses to images, too. A photo of tacos generated replies like, "Nom nom nom" and, "Looks delish" (see what I said about it being colloquial?) and if Allo recognizes a landmark like a photo of Brandenburg Gate, it will identify the monument and can begin search queries for the famous gate itself, Berlin or architecture in general.

Incognito Mode and other fun stuff

If the idea of Google monitoring your chats creeps you out, there's Incognito Mode. This isn't the default mode because you won't get any features like Assistant or Smart Reply. But when you choose to go Incognito, you'll get end-to-end encryption, meaning Google and other nosy third-party partners aren't accessing your conversation. Incognito Mode also lets you set an expiration time (ranging from 5 seconds to one week) that will make your chat will disappear on schedule.

Other features include blocking contacts, fun sticker packs and the ability to annotate and doodle on images before you send them. You can also increase or decrease text size to reflect if you're figuratively shouting or whispering your reply (just like in Apple's new Messages app with other iOS users).

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Allo's Incognito Mode that will erase a conversation after an hour (left) and its Emoji movie game (right).

Lynn La/CNET

Why consider Allo?

Google Allo is about the zillionth messaging app in existence (that's just a rough estimate) so chances are you're already on a chat platform and it would be hard to convince you to join another one.

Many of these apps have their individual advantages over Allo. As an enterprise-minded platform, Hangouts has more collaborative tools, including group video calling. iMessage for iOS 10 has a lot more fun cosmetic features like screen effects and handwriting capabilities. With Facebook Messenger you can use GIFs, request rides and even send money to another user. WhatsApp has more productivity support for sharing documents and PDFs, and it's open to Windows Phone and BlackBerry users as well. Finally, all these apps have a desktop version, so you can chat seamlessly from your phone to a computer.

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So many choices for chatting.

Lynn La/CNET

However, Allo does have its unique benefits. First off, it's cross-platform, which iMessage wholly lacks. iMessage's full gamut of capabilities can only be experienced through iOS 10; older iOS versions don't support all its new features, and Android users are left out altogether. At least with Allo, your iOS and Android buddies can chat together with all the same fun features.

Second, Allo's Incognito Mode, with its end-to-end encryption, is another layer of privacy I can appreciate. (Facebook Messenger doesn't have this yet.) And while it's not a unique feature -- the chat app Telegram, for example, can do the same thing -- I especially like setting expiration times for those ultrasensitive conversations.

But the most compelling feature is Google Assistant. Though chatbots do exist (indeed Facebook Messenger supports tons of them that can request rides, order food and give you weather info), Assistant is a megabot that merges together just about everything chatbots can do. Plus, calling up Assistant during a group chat means all your friends can use it together. Just think of Assistant as that one friend you have that is a little stilted in conversation, but is super helpful and always knows the right answer.