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Google upgrades Hangouts to support HD video chats

Google has just made communicating with friends and family a little clearer, with a Hangouts upgrade to 720p HD video.

The new high-definition option is rolling out gradually to Hangouts on Air users initially, then to all Google+ desktop video callers over the next few weeks.

HD Hangouts do require a HD-capable webcam, more bandwidth, and higher processing power than standard definition, so those with older equipment may not be able to access the updated feature. But, if your computer and network can handle it, turn up the quality to full HD.

User reactions are overwhelmingly positive, based on the comments left on Google's announcement.

"Awesome sauce!" Jake Croston wrote, seconded by Collectors Hangout, which asked Google's vice president of engineering, Chee Chew, to "Please pass on our sincere thanks to the rest of your team!!!"

The transition has been helped along by Google's move from H.264 video codec to VP8, an open and royalty-free video codec, according to GigaOm. It also marks an early move toward in-browser video chat without the need for plugins.

Chew also promised the feature would roll out to mobile users in the future. But encoding takes more processing power and battery life, so mobile CPU's "are always a challenge."

Google revamped its social network in early February, improving the Hangouts experience, especially for those in areas with low and/or unreliable connectivity. Now, users can adjust their bandwidth preferences in real time via the slider in the top-right corner of the screen. Or opt for audio-only mode, in which case the new HD function would be rendered moot.

The tech giant also recently heralded the return of Google Voice within its new Hangout experience on Gmail and Chrome. The update allows calls to the US and Canada for free from all countries where Hangouts calling is available.