Five Best Text Messaging Alternatives

The text message is far from dead, but smartphone apps that let you chat with others (whether via text, video or voice) without charging you for every single message are increasingly popular. We've rounded up five of the most popular choices.

Picture by China Photos/Getty Images

There are two important points to make regarding free messaging apps. The first is that in order to use them, both you and the person you're communicating with need to have the app installed. For that reason alone, they're unlikely to ever completely replace conventional SMS/text messaging, which works on any mobile with a SIM card in it. One recent study suggests almost half of us use them, but virtually everyone doing so sends ordinary text messages as well.

The second point is that 'free' is a somewhat deceptive term. Most of these apps are free to install (WhatsApp being the exception) and you don't pay for each individual message, but you do pay for the data used. Text messages won't use up large volumes of data, but video chat definitely will. If you're using a Wi-Fi connection at home or in the office, that won't matter, but it's potentially a problem if your smartphone plan doesn't offer a large amount of data. (It also may provide a good reason to avoid these apps when you're overseas, since roaming charges can make the process ridiculously expensive.) If you make voice calls to a non-connected user via their phone number, you'll also pay fixed rates, which may or may not be cheaper than using your actual phone for the same caller. Check carefully.

iMessage/Facetime

iMessage (for chatting) and Facetime (for video calling) are technically separate apps, but both come standardly preinstalled as part of modern versions of iOS and Mac OS X so we're treating them as a single entity. If you run an entirely Apple shop and that also applies to most of your friends, both are robust and easy-to-use platforms that are, as you'd expect, deeply integrated into the OS. However, the lack of options for any other platform means that this is unlikely to be the only solution you use. FaceTime doesn't work over 3G on older iPhone models unless you jailbreak, but can be used with the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.

WhatsApp

WhatsApp appears to be the most popular of the alternative messaging applications, something that's in part attributable to the huge range of platforms it supports. Apps are available for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7 and Symbian. On all these platforms, the main feature set is the same: you can send messages, audio and video to individuals or groups. The WhatsApp app itself isn't free — you'll pay $0.99 a year to use it, with the first year free on most platforms apart from iOS — but the upside is there are no ads involved.

Viber

The main direct rival for WhatsApp, Viber has an even broader range of platforms covered, including iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, Symbian and even Bada. The apps are free and there's no advertising or ongoing charges (which does make you wonder how the company will ever make money).

Facebook

Facebook maintains apps for every major phone platform (check out the iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry clients), and makes it easy to chat both real-time and disconnected with anyone on your friends list. That makes it potentially very useful for chatting with those close to you, but it's not an option you'll ever use for one-time communications. At least you won't have to talk someone into install a single-purpose chatting app, though, since the chances are if they're a Facebook user they'll already have the app for other purposes. (Facebook also offers separate messaging-only apps on several platforms if you want a less distracted experience.)

Skype

While you might think of Skype as a desktop app, there are plenty of mobile versions available as well, with native clients for iOS, iPad, Android, Windows Phone 7 and Symbian. With more than 660 million users registered worldwide, there's also a fair chance someone you want to talk with has a Skype account. Both video calling and messaging are supported, though Skype definitely puts its emphasis on the former.

This is a competitive space, and there are lots of other good alternatives. Honourable mentions go to BlackBerry Messenger, which pioneered the notion of free text chat across the same platform and remains a great alternative for BlackBerry owners; Google+, which offers well-designed video chat through its Hangouts; and fring, the only other chat platform to register in most market surveys.

Want to sing the praises of another free messaging option? Tell us about it in the comments.


Comments

    The best messaging is still e-mail. Free, truly cross-platform, feature rich, instant enough... And unlike all mentioned platforms it is universal - you do not have to ask yourself "Does this person have WhatsApp? or Skype? or iMessage?" Everyone has e-mail.

      Xmpp?

        I still use Xmpp, I run it on my own server :)

      The thing for me with email is simply - no one I know uses it as a main form of communication anymore. Could be that I'm young and therefore I'm surrounded by people who use Facebook on a daily basis, but Facebook and text messaging is the way to go for me to quickly reach people.

        Don't worry. Soon you and a few of your friends will have office jobs, and you'll realise that you can chat to them yet appear to be hard at work.

        Email is universal and accepted by all businesses as 'real work'. It's not going anywhere.

          Haha, I've got an office job myself but I just text anyway ;-) pretty bad I know...

      Interestingly, Japan has used email instead of SMS etc for years. Their phone network never supported SMS so they turned to email and as such everything revolves around that, it's much much better...

      I don't have email on my Nokia 3210.

    Meh, I've had free sms with my post paid plans now for several years.

    It's free, and truly multi platform compatible.

      What about SMSing people overseas? And does the person who you are SMSing also have free SMS with their plan? They need to reply to you remember.

    You can SMS the US for free through a couple alternatives: email to SMS gateway or google voice.
    Google voice requires you to setup an account in the US with a US number linked and download the app from their App Store. But I got mine sorted with a friend and it works pretty well. Just remember to unlink your gv number from their real one

    A little odd that you didn't mention Google Talk... you know, the one used by just about every Android or Gmail user.

      I use Gmail but I've probably only used Google Talk once or twice in the four years I've had my Gmail account for. None of my other friends use Gmail after all.

    Google Talk? Also does audio and video and is available on desktop and android.

    I recommend "Tango". I has messaging and is a great way to do Android to iOS video calls.

    I used to think of Google Talk as a good text messaging alternative, but over time I've changed my mind for several reasons.
    1. Google Talk doesn't give you a full history of conversation. This is the 'off the record' which is, in some cases, really useful. Unfortunately, I think it hampers the usefulness of Google Talk as an SMS replacement.
    2. Google Talk messages can appear in too many places, so they are too easy to lose. If I send a Google Talk message to someone, and they have G+ open then the Google Talk message can appear on G+ (which is great) but never show up on their phone (which is really where I want it to show up). Likewise, if the user is logged into Gmail, the message can appear in the Gmail interface but not in Google Talk on the phone. This just makes it too easy for messages to disappear into the ether.

    If it were not for these two things, I think Google Talk would be a spectacular text messaging alternative. In practice, I actually think the best alternative to SMS is e-mail. With modern phones, it is often just as fast to receive as SMS, can have attachments of higher quality than MMS, and is standardised so you don't wind up with 102 apps.

    Last edited 23/01/14 5:15 pm

      Google Talk does give you a full history unless you specifically decide to go off the record. Also, if you have Gmail open, messages will show up in both Gmail and your phone, not one or the other.

    I've heard a lot about Kik. has anyone else experienced this platform?

      Yep, I love kik messenger... fast and efficient...

    I wish they would update whats app for the iphone 5 :'( The black bars make me sad

    My friends and I still use e-mail on a daily basis to communicate as all of us have full time jobs in offices. I'm talking over 40 messages a day easy.

    As already mentioned, e-mail can be accessed on anything and it's near instant, plus you can reply anytime you like, it's easy to search, and 100% free of proprietary code that just chews up more bandwidth.

    The only disadvantage is that it's totally insecure, it's likely to be cached by your workplace, and it will be captured by any data retention laws. Not so much of a problem if all of you use gmail however.

    The other thing this article fails to mention is that text messaging is free and unliimited on many plans. If you have a smartphone with data included in your plan, it's likely you have unlimited text as well.

    Last edited 22/10/12 12:40 pm

    Voxer is the best! its a walkie talkie app for iOS and Android!

    I'm suprised WeChat isn't on here! I started using it in China when i lived there and it is truely superior to Imessage or Whatsapp! Sending voice messages through Edge internet is fast and pictures and videos can be compressed for sending as well as sending location. It is so good, definitely my favorite alternative!

    Meh, I'm a heavy user of Google apps and have an Android phone yet never have used GTalk except when someone could not get skype working... there is something about GTalk that makes me never want to use it, I always resort to email

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