What to look for in a messaging app

Messaging apps are packed with features. Find one that matches your needs.

You may have picked your messaging apps because they're the ones your friends use. But if you're looking for a new chat app -- or a new group of friends -- here's what to look for.

Messaging apps are packed with similar features, and navigating around an interface to find the right contact, image filter, or game can be challenging. The best messengers group similar features together, putting what you are looking for a swipe or two away. Most also want your contacts to be on the same messaging service, so pick an app that suits your and your friends' needs.


Send text as well photos and videos

At their most basic, messaging apps let you exchange texts with friends and family, either in a one-to-one conversation or as part of a group. Most also let you send stickers, emojis, and GIFs. Share photos and videos, either from your phone's camera roll or by using the app's own camera. With Snapchat (iOS and Android), for example, you can capture photos and short videos, add amusing filters and overlays, and then share the results with your friends.

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Add contacts

A messaging app isn't of much use if you can't find friends and family to chat with. Most apps make it easy to add contacts, by pulling names from your phone's contact list, by connecting to Facebook friends, or by linking up via a friend's phone number. Some, such as Signal (iOS and Android), make you go through a few extra security steps when adding a contact.

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Encryption

A handful of apps -- including Signal and WhatsApp (iOS and Android) -- encrypt messages, creating a private connection through the Internet. When applied end to end, encryption allows just the sender and receiver to view the message. While Signal and WhatsApp use end-to-end encryption by default, others, such as Allo (iOS and Android), make it an optional setting. In Allo's case, messages pass through Google's servers unencrypted. Turn on Allo's Incognito mode for complete privacy. See our article on secure messaging apps for more info. For additional security, privacy-minded apps such as Signal prevent you from taking screenshots of app screens.

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Voice and video calls

Most of the popular apps let you make free worldwide voice and video calls between users. Many let you purchase a plan to call mobile numbers and landlines from a messaging app too. Some apps, such as Skype (iOS and Android), offer excellent video quality.

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Play games

As if chatting weren't enough, a few messaging apps let you play games. Facebook Messenger (iOS and Android) for example, come with nearly three dozen games, including Space Invaders and Galaga, that you can play by yourself or with friends.

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Send money

A few apps offer the handy service of sharing payments with friends. Facebook Messenger, for example, lets you send and receive money to split a bill, make a payment, or call in a debt. With Viber (iOS and Android), you can send money via Western Union to the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, and France.

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Chatbots

If you are looking for digital assistance, a few chat apps offer that too. Facebook Messenger includes chatbots that will show the latest news or help with travel arrangements. Allo has Google Assistant, which can retrieve your calendar, show photos, and answer questions about the weather, travel times, and more.

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About Clifford Colby

Clifford Colby follows the Mac and Android markets for Download.com. He's been an editor at Peachpit Press and a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWeek, MacUser, and Corporate Computing.