Even if the horrors of US politics have made checking your regular Facebook account something that fills you with dread, don't discount the social network's excellent Android messaging client, Facebook Messenger. This Android app lets you chat via text, video, and voice, and will even do double duty as your default SMS client. An astonishing array of stickers and smartly integrated Secret Conversations feature make it an Editors' Choice winner for Android mobile messaging.
You're Already Signed Up
Facebook Messenger is available free in Google Play, and I had no trouble loading it onto my Nexus 5x. During setup, you're prompted to enter your phone number and grant access to your contacts, but if you'd rather Facebook not have access to this information you can just skip it. If you already have a Facebook account (and who doesn't?), simply log in and you're finished. If you're already logged in to the Facebook app, Messenger simply logs you in automatically after a confirmation.
Getting involved with any Facebook product may be a nonstarter for some. While a phone number is not required to use Facebook Messenger, you can use one instead of a Facebook account to sign up. However, doing so requires that you give Facebook Messenger access to your contacts. That's true for most mobile messenger services. When I signed up for Messenger using only my phone number, it showed me a picture of a woman and asked if I was her. Apparently, she had the same phone number listed that I had used. Not to worry; I clicked no and continued without connecting to Facebook.
One of the hardest parts of any messaging service is finding other users. But because of Facebook's ubiquity, it's very likely that most of your friends are already onboard. Other messaging apps, particularly obscure or security-minded ones like Editors' Choice winner Signal, are a tougher sell exactly because of their limited user base. You probably won't have this problem with Facebook Messenger, considering that Facebook reported around 1.71 billion active users as of 2016. WhatsApp, a popular messaging client since purchased by Facebook, also has about a billion users.
A Standout Messenger
Facebook Messenger is available on just about every platform you can imagine, including the Web and Windows Phone. My review of the Facebook Messenger for the iPhone has an exhaustive rundown of every feature. I'll just summarize those here and then discuss security and features unique to Android.
My experience with Facebook apps has generally been negative. The discontinued Facebook spin-off services like Rooms and Slingshot were perplexing, to put it politely, and the core Facebook app is useful, but overstuffed. Facebook Messenger, on the other hand, is a high-water mark against which all Facebook apps and, perhaps, all messaging apps, should be measured.
In addition to text, you can send audio clips, images, video, and custom emoji presented in large format. But Messenger also lets you send money through the service (provided you've entered a payment option), and has thousands of cute, high-quality images called Stickers to choose from. I'm a big fan of the Pusheen and Business Fish images, but you're sure to find something fun that suits your fancy. There are also integrations with third-party apps, like Uber and Giphy. Note that you cannot attach files directly, but can share items with Messenger's Dropbox integration.
If text chatting isn't your thing, Facebook Messenger also handles VoIP calls and live video chat quite well. You can even hold group calls, but only with voice. If group video calling is essential, consider Google Hangouts or Skype, both of which support up to 10 users. Facebook Messenger also lets you create groups for persistent group chats, with all the tools you expect.
Facebook Messenger also supports chatbots, which let you get information or take actions by chatting with them. They can be found in a special suggestion section that's revealed when you tap the search bar. I doubt this will get much traction on Android, considering that the Google Assistant will surely play a larger role on the platform. The Google Assistant lets you access Google search results and some third-party interactions through a digital assistant. It is far more capable and closer at hand than the third-party chatbots on Messenger. You can try it out for yourself in Google Allo, or experience it integrated directly into the OS on the Google Pixel phones. It's hard to generalize what Facebook Messenger chatbots can do because each one is different, and that's a weakness of the service.
Three years ago, Edward Snowden revealed the vast inner workings of the NSA's metadata and electronic interception operation. Since then, arguments over who can access your messages and when has spurred the creation of numerous secure messaging services.
Recently, Facebook addressed some privacy concerns with a Secret Conversation mode. You enable this feature from the Settings menu and designate a single phone as your default phone. That's because messages sent in Secret mode are encrypted end-to-end; they can only be read on the device you sent them from or the device that receives them. Neither Facebook nor law enforcement should be able to see them.
Facebook has confirmed that normal messages sent through Facebook Messenger are encrypted in transit to avoid interception, but Facebook manages the encryption keys. That means that Facebook, or law enforcement with a court order, could conceivably read those messages. Secret Conversations are encrypted using the open-source Signal protocol, and cannot be read by anyone other than you and the message's recipient. The Signal technology is also being used to secure the excellent Signal Android app, WhatsApp messages, and Incognito messages for Google Allo.
Many companies claim that they offer encryption, but most that do opt not to go into detail about the process. Facebook has done the opposite. Signal has publicly avowed that the implementation of Signal by Facebook was done correctly. A recent survey from Amnesty International put Facebook Messenger ahead of all other messaging services, including Apple's default Messages, for protecting information.
The Secret Conversation mode looks like a simplified version of normal text chat. A black bar across the top makes it visually clear that this is a different messaging experience. While in a Secret Conversation, you can still send photos, videos, stickers, and location, in addition to text. You can also set a timer for how long messages will last. Once the timer ends, the message is deleted. It's similar to Snapchat, but more security minded, like Wickr.
What's On Android
Unique to the Android version of Facebook Messenger are Chat Heads, which are round icons that hover over apps and the home screen and provide fast access to Facebook Messenger. These debuted in the main Facebook app and were loathed, but they make sense on Android as a floating widget.
Chat Heads show the face of the message sender, and new ones appear when you receive a new message. Tap on them to open a Messenger window, complete with all of the app's options, without opening the app. I especially like that they show the full text of incoming messages for a few seconds, so you can decide if you need to immediately respond. You can dismiss Chat Heads by tapping and dragging them to the bottom of the screen, and they can be disabled in the Messenger settings. They are enabled by default.
While I like the Chat Heads, Snapchat's innovative interface is better suited for receiving voice and video calls. On that app, you can answer a video call with video, just voice, or only text, without canceling the call. It's a simple touch that yields a much more flexible experience.
Perhaps the most surprising feature of Messenger on Android is that the app can serve as a complete SMS client replacement. During setup, you have the opportunity to make it your default tool for text messages. This is great, since you can now have your standard messages and over-the-top messages in one spot. Unfortunately, it's not a call-replacement app, but I can dream. iPhone users can't get an experience like this because of the tight controls Apple maintains on the phone's core capabilities.
Signal, the secure messaging app, also serves as an SMS client replacement. I really like this implementation because it lets you stay in touch with everyone in your contact list. Other Signal users get encrypted messages, and everyone else gets regular SMS messages. While I am very happy to see Secret Conversations in Messenger, if privacy is your primary concern, you're better off with Signal's offering.
The sheer ubiquity of Facebook is Facebook Messenger's best feature. Unlike virtually every other over-the-top messaging service, you probably won't have to poke and prod your friends to sign up. And even if they are somehow not on Facebook, the full SMS replacement option means you can seamlessly send them messages from the same app. The third-party app integration isn't as seamless as other offerings, but it rounds out an already robust slate of features including GIFs, emoji, various media, and the excellent sticker store. The recently unveiled Secret Conversations feature is icing on an already excellent cake. It's an Editors' Choice winner for mobile messaging on Android.