Overview: Before the beta version of Google Talk was released, the hype was hot. Was Google going to roll out a killer app and make rival IM clients obsolete? At first, at least, the answer was no. Google Talk is still pretty simple, but now it allows you to chat by text and voice, leave free voicemails, transfer files, and see what your buddies are listening to on Yahoo Music, iTunes, Windows Media Player, or Winamp. Still, Google Talk lacks many of the bells and whistles of other instant messengers, including emoticons, those graphical smiley faces that pepper the chat sessions of popular instant-messaging services such as AIM Triton, Windows Live or MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, and Skype. Google is working with AOL to let users of Google Talk and AIM chat with each other, as Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo Messenger have already done for their users.
Upside: The 900K download of Google Talk takes a few seconds via broadband on your Windows 2000 or higher computer. Launch Google Talk, and a clean, unobtrusive floating window appears, instantly adding names from your Gmail address book into your list of contacts. The integration of Gmail and Google Talk will add value for those who already rely heavily on Google's growing service and tools offerings. This window offers just a few links: Inbox, Setting, Help, and Add Friend. You also get a search box to look up and invite other Gmail users to chat. One major benefit to this early version of Google Talk is not so much what it has but rather what it lacks: Google Talk is currently ad free. And if you're a Google fan who doesn't want to download Google Talk, Gmail's built-in chatting can take care of your instant-messaging needs.
Double-click a buddy's name within Google Talk beta, and a small chat window opens, with buttons to let you e-mail, call, or transfer files.. Click Email to open a Web browser window and go straight to your Gmail account. Put on a VoIP headset and click Call, and you can talk for free right away to any other Google Talk user. During the conversation, a volume indicator lights up, and you can mute the call. We made a call and found the quality to be at least as clear as that of a mobile phone. You can leave a voicemail message for any contact, even if they don't have a Google account, and you can listen to your own voicemail messages within Gmail.
Google Talk beta also allows you transfer files without any size limit, a plus if you're working on a project with a buddy or sharing large picture files. Now Google Talk can tell if buddies are tuning in to iTunes, Yahoo Music, Winamp, or the Windows Media Player, and you can peek at their song selection of the moment. Thankfully, in our tests of Google Talk, we didn't run into any operating snafus--unlike with the initial beta edition of AOL's Triton. The online searchable knowledge base is thorough, if you have questions.
Downside: You can use Google Talk only if you use Gmail for e-mail. So far, this beta of Google Talk is extremely limited; you can't change your font or background window, although you can now upload an image to represent yourself. And don't even think about viewing the latest news, designing an avatar, linking to friends' blogs, or other goodies that Yahoo Messenger with Voice, Windows Live Messenger, and Skype offer. Because Google Talk uses the Jabber open-source standard, it works with five lesser-known IM clients, including Trillian Pro, but you'll have to pay Trillian $25 for the Pro version. Unfortunately, you can't use Google Talk to chat with people using the popular AIM, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, or Skype programs. Mac users are also out of luck, though Google says it intends to include them and Linux fans at a later date, and you can chat with Google Talk users via iChat and other clients such as GAIM. Unlike efforts by IM makers, such as Yahoo, to filter out uninvited messages from strangers, Google's advice for receiving spam instant messages is simply, "Ignore them." Google Talk also lacks the conference-calling and encryption-based security features offered through Skype.
Outlook: Pitted against a deluxe communications suite such as Yahoo Messenger with Voice, the Google Talk beta is the discount motel room of instant messaging. Still, Google will likely continue to add more features and integrate Google Talk into other products. You can already embed this IM client into the new Google Desktop 2.0 sidebar. Expect all kinds of rumors about Google's next steps. There's already speculation that Google will combine its photo-swapping program Picasa and its Hello chatting tool. To date, Google Talk might be handy for Gmail users, but other IM services with VoIP, especially Yahoo Messenger with Voice and Skype, have a lot more to offer.