At a Glance
You need a Gmail account to try Google Talk--yet another Google service in beta form. If you have that prerequisite, you can get rolling by inviting the Gmail contacts you choose to download the free Google Talk app (these contacts are automatically moved into Google Talk). Installing the Google Talk instant messaging application is quick and painless, and it starts up in just a few seconds.
The first thing that struck me about Google Talk was its simplicity--a rare thing in IM Land. If you're used to working with instant messaging applications that are laden with features and customization options, you'll see find Google Talk startlingly austere: It's truly bare-boned, with limited customization settings. Though it lacks video, Google Talk handles text and voice messaging features very nicely.
Once I got Google Talk up and running, I appreciated the squeaky-clean environment: It's ad-free and pop-up-free, includes lots of white space, and contains no clusters of icons to distract you from your messaging business. In fact, going from the likes of Yahoo Messenger to Google Talk is a bit like going from a noisy consumer electronics superstore to a quiet boutique up a side street.
I also liked being able to detach the messaging window from the contacts list window and then move both around. If you reattach them by placing the messaging window below the contacts window, the former automatically resizes itself to fit the latter's vertical profile.
If you leave Google Talk's Notifications settings at their default values, you'll receive an alert every time a new e-mail message arrives at your Gmail account. A small window pops up briefly, identifying the sender's name and the subject line. That's handy if you want to keep an eye out for a particular missive. But if you get dozens of e-mail messages every hour, you may want to turn off those peppy signals.
In our voice chat tests, call quality sounded impressive--initially. Despite a faint hum in the background, my editor's voice and mine sounded crisp, and our sentences stayed intact. But further into our conversation, things went downhill. It sounded as though we were both talking on cell phones in a car wash. The slushing sound became so distracting that we simply hung up. (Not all is lost on the video side, however. Google Talkers yearning for this feature can try a plug-in called Festoon by Santa Cruz Networks.)
You might consider Google Talk somewhat exclusive, since you need to be part of the Gmail club to get it. But it's not a closed circuit: The Google Talk network is compatible with the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), which lets you send IMs to other XMPP-compliant programs, such as Gaim, Jabber, and iChat. Your buddies will need to have Gmail and must configure their IM program to work accordingly.
If you rely on Gmail--and have built up a large address book--Google Talk lets you integrate text and voice messaging very easily. But if you want much more than that, look elsewhere.
Aoife M. McEvoy