Readers of a certain age might find themselves avoiding Facebook these days, as the service has become more synonymous with racist uncles ranting about the latest fascist presidential candidate than bored college students. But the ubiquity of Facebook is among the best features of Facebook Messenger. With this messaging service, you can easily send a text message to anyone on Facebook, or share a voice or video call with anyone on Facebook Messenger. It's one of the best iPhone apps out there, and an easy Editors' Choice winner. A recent update makes finding friends even easier.
Downloading and installing Facebook Messenger is a matter of a few taps in the Apple App Store. I had no trouble activating the app on my iPhone 6.
If you live in a multi-device household, you'll be relieved to know that there are versions of the app for Android and even Windows Phone!
If you don't have a Facebook account by this point, you're probably a reptiloid posing as a human being. Luckily for you, my scaly friend, you can create an account by entering your phone number. If you are a real human and do have a Facebook account, you can simply login with that. Note that you do not need to enter your phone number to use Facebook Messenger, nor do you have to share your contacts with the app, although Facebook encourages you to do so.
Right from the start, Facebook Messenger shows off its focus on minimalism. The Recent messages window is simply white, with little versions of your friends' user images to the left of each message. Group messages show a divided circle of faces, giving you a quick glimpse of who is conversing. A truncated preview of the most recent message is shown in the list, which I like because I can decide whether or not to answer right away.
The navigation along the bottom uses Facebook's trademark blue to highlight the section you're currently in: Recent, Calls, Groups, People, and Settings. Note that the People section simply shows all of your contacts, with the opportunity to chat, call, or invite non-users to the service.
Your most recent conversations are displayed chronologically in the Recent section, with unread messages marked in bold type. Swipe left over any thread to delete the message, archive it, mark it as spam, or mute the thread. This last option simply silences notifications on a particular thread for set periods of time or until you unmute it. You can also block people directly from this menu, which I particularly like.
Although the Recent page is where the app opens by default, you probably won't spend too much time there. For example, I usually respond to messages from the iOS Notifications pull-down page, or by tapping the push alerts as they come in. That means I spend most of my time in the actual chat window, which has a slightly snappier design. Incoming messages are displayed in a grey chat bubble while your messages are in a Facebook-blue bubble.
Facebook Messenger does discern the difference between people who are merely on Facebook and those who have signed up for Facebook Messenger. The latter are marked with a blue icon, indicating that they can receive voice or video calls, but more on that later. In my testing, finding someone to chat with was not a problem. That's hardly surprising, as Facebook boasts 1.6 billion users and 900 million Facebook Messenger users—much more than any other chat service, even WhatsApp, can claim.
All the Chat That's Fit to Print
From within a Messenger thread, you can see when the recipient read your message and when he or she is formulating a response. The interface is very interactive, with subtle animations that let you know it's working.
In addition to text, you can also add locations, photos, 15 seconds of video, 15 seconds of audio, or a huge Facebook thumbs-up to any Messenger thread. These all worked smoothly for me.
Group chats have all the features of a normal Messenger thread, except with more people. I really like that Facebook lets you easily remove yourself from the group or mute the group if it becomes too annoying. It's a bit anarchic, however, since the group's creator has no special privileges within the group. Anyone can remove any other member, including the group's creator. Still, if you're tired of being trapped in endless group chats, Facebook Messenger can help.
Like Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger eschews the traditional IM model and assumes that all users are available all the time. In that sense, it's really more like texting. Though you can toggle your availability off from the People section, it's a far cry from the status messages of old-style instant messaging.
By default, Messenger only shows messengers from your Facebook friends. Messages from outside your social circle are shunted into a hidden folder called Filtered Requests. From Settings you tap People, then Message Requests, then See Filtered Requests. For the most part, these are junk messages. More than anything, looking at this list makes me appreciate what a good job Facebook does showing me only important messages.
It's strange to say this, but as mobile chat clients improve, the bulk and availability of stickers often decides how much I will like the service. Stickers are emoji-like images, usually styled in a particular theme, and I adore them. A basic set of smileys is included in the app, while others can be downloaded from a built-in marketplace. Most are free, including the famous near-spherical, adorable cartoon cat Pusheen.
Other services like Editors' Choice winners Viber and Telegram have stickers, though Telegram is notable for allowing users to create and share their own sticker sets. Facebook Messenger might be the only place where I can send my friends a tiny image of Jason Statham (as seen in The Expendables 3) surrounded by hearts, but someone created a Murder, She Wrote sticker set for Telegram.
Facebook Messenger also lets you make voice-over-IP calls to other Messenger users. As with most VoIP services, such as Signal, the call takes a long time to connect even after both parties have accepted it. Once connected, the call quality is excellent, with greater range in the audio than that of normal cellular calls. I'm pleasantly surprised at the low latency of my Messenger calls, but I imagine that your mileage may vary depending on your network connection. Another great feature: Facebook lets you leave a voicemail if your recipient is unavailable.
Facebook Messenger recently added video calls, bringing it up to speed with Google Hangouts, Skype, and even Snapchat. My video call connected swiftly and was low-latency enough for us to talk easily. I was a bit disappointed at the video quality, although I have yet to see another mobile chat app (besides FaceTime) that performs better. Interestingly, Facebook Messenger indicated that I had a "weak signal" despite being connected to a FiOS Wi-Fi router.
Unfortunately, video calls in Facebook Messenger are limited to just two participants. If you have a Google account, you can use Hangouts to talk to ten other people simultaneously. Why you would want to is, of course, your own business.
From within Messenger you can also search for and send animated reaction GIFs, which have become the lingua franca of the Internet. If, for you, money speaks louder than words, you can add your credit card and use Messenger to send payments to other members of the service. I personally have not used this feature since I try to limit who has my credit card info, and because services like Venmo have become popular avenues for sharing cash. New integrations let you access services like Disney Gif and even Uber from within Messenger. This all sounds like a lot (and it is), but Facebook Messenger is smartly designed to highlight the actually useful services and keep everything else suppressed. Facebook is also making it easier to connect applications to Messenger, and Dropbox already plays nice with the service. There's also a refined version of the much-loathed chat heads to improve the video experience in Messenger.
Recently, Facebook announced that it is introducing a slew of new features to make connecting with other users easier. First, a special coded image encircles your user picture on the Settings screen. Tap it, and it expands to fill the screen, and gives you the option to scan someone else's code. These act like QR codes, and let two people connect in person without having to search for each other on Messenger. Think of it like a digital business card for Facebook.
Facebook also introduced Usernames, which let other people find you without using your phone number or real name. Usernames come with a super-short a public link that launches the Web version of Messenger, giving you the option to be fully accessible to whomever would like to chat. Telegram also introduced these last two features, and I thought they were excellent. Messenger fans excited by these features should note that Facebook seems to be rolling them out slowly.
Edward Snowden made the NSA's massive surveillance operation a household subject back in 2013. Everyone should consider the possibility that someone other than the intended recipient could read their message, and it's fair to ask how much a messaging platform exposes you to that risk. I've reached out to Facebook to better understand how messages are secured in Messenger, and will update this review when I learn more.
If security is a concern for you, but you still want the convenience offered by Facebook Messenger, stick to iMessages. Messages sent between iPhone users are encrypted end-to-end, and even the FBI complains about not being able to read them. Signal also offers encrypted messaging, and throws in encrypted voice calls to boot. Telegram not only offers encrypted chats, but also includes many of the more fun features found in Facebook Messenger.
Snapchat is best known for its ephemeral messaging, but it doesn't have the best security track record. Telegram and Editors' Choice Wickr also let you define a lifespan for your messages and have been dedicated to secure messaging since their respective launches.
Any messaging app from Facebook would be worthwhile simply because the service is so popular, and Messenger certainly benefits from that ubiquity. But it's also simple, easy to use, and looks good. And while minimalist in appearance, it's packed to the gills with every feature an online messaging service should have, and several you probably will never use.
If you're looking to stay in touch with your friends and you don't have their phone numbers, or simply don't feel like texting, it is probably impossible to do better than Facebook Messenger. It's an easy Editors' Choice. But, if you're concerned about security, consider WhatsApp, Signal, or Editors' Choice winners Telegram and Wickr.