Impressions: Google+ Is Everything Facebook Should Be

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Oooh, things might start getting interesting around here. That’s because for the first time, Google’s thrown down a real social networking contender with Google+. Facebook finally might have gotten its first real rival.

Forget Buzz. Forget Wave. I almost even forgot what Google Wave was called. While my first impressions of Google+ initially reminded me of Facebook, it quickly distinguished itself from its competitor. In reality, Google+ feels like everything that Facebook should be.

(MORE: Google Faces Up to Facebook with ‘Plus’ Social Sharing Site)

The user interface is slick, clean, and most of all blazingly fast. Compared to Facebook, which is often sluggish, convoluted and cumbersome these days, using Google+ is like zipping on by with a jet plane. To Google+’s credit, the interface is intuitive, thereby making the learning curve low.

Let me make myself clear: You don’t “add friends” with Google+. Rather, you can add anyone, and anyone can add you. Multiple people can be part of different circles, just as in real life. There’s my geeky early-adopting friends, Grandma Joe, Ms. Jackson, Angelina Jolie, my boss and the guy who checks me out at the supermarket.

But if you and a friend have added each other to your Circles, a new option pops up to send them a message. Instead of “messaging” them, you will be able to send them an email – straight through Gmail. If you’re like Doug, who refuses to add me, I can’t email him. It’s a simple system and, even better, it eliminates all social awkwardness that comes when you decide to defriend your ex or your filthy roommate. [Editor’s note: You added me in the middle of the night! We’re all square now, though — Doug]

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For the overly image-conscientious, Google+ is the perfect tool. Privacy is very straightforward, because each setting comes up as you go to edit your profile. Whereas most of Facebook’s privacy options seem hidden in that upper-right hand screen of yours, Google’s seems to be right in the open. Don’t want to fill it out either? No problem.

(MORE: Resharing Loophole: Is This Google+’s First Privacy Flub?)

There’s also no “Wall,” meaning no one can post how awesome that insane skydiving jump was on that same very day you also happened to call in sick to your boss.

Photos are pretty self-explanatory, but what’s neat is that Google has baked in mobile uploads from the Android app to automatically default as private. That lets you handle the logistics later, and is a smart way to handle what photos you want to be public on your profile. And if you also happen to be one of those FourSquare people, don’t worry, because Google+ can also pull location data if you want it to.

Sparks is the social-networking equivalent of Google blog search. You can also add a topic or search term for easy future access. It’s baked right into the Google+, so you don’t have to leave the site to quickly find information on something.

There’s also Hangout, where you, well, “hang out” with people. It’s basically Google Video chat, but also includes group video calling. Eff it, I want to hang out with my Circle today. Or all of my Circles. There’s also Huddles, for the texting version. And Google+ directly integrates with your current Google contacts, so you can talk or video chat to contacts like you would normally do in Gmail. It’s an ingenious way to communicate and makes Facebook chat look incredibly archaic.

That’s not to say the system is perfect—far from it, in fact. While a few things need more polish, Google will undoubtedly clean them up in due time. For instance you can’t email a whole Circle, which would make sense because you can do other things with whole Circles. And while it’s a great tool, it needs more people on the service. You know, to make it social.

That doesn’t change the fact the user experience, as a whole, is pretty satisfying. And no, I don’t have any invites at the moment.

MORE: Google Plus… Me? Securing a Google+ Invite Isn’t Easy Yet

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