Lauren Goode

Which Messaging App Is Right for You?

Smartphone messaging apps are all the rage these days.

But for some people they’re a mystery. Why would you use a messaging app when your phone’s SMS text messaging function is fine enough for photos and text, or if you use iMessage on the iPhone?

The point of these new smartphone messaging apps is to go beyond that, by letting you send different kinds of media, connect easily and cheaply with international friends, and even send pictures of yourself that will self-combust a few seconds after they’ve been opened. They also create new, mini social networks that companies hope make users stick around.

These apps, for the most part, use data to send the messages, so they won’t add to your tally if you have a monthly limit on SMS through your wireless carrier.

This week, I channeled my inner teenager and dove into a handful of different messaging apps, including WhatsApp, Snapchat and a new one called Burn Note. I see some of the benefit to using these apps. Some features are useful, like being able to loop in friends who own various phones on the same messaging thread. Others are just fun, like the app that let me doodle on a Google search pic before sending it off to a friend.

But their usefulness depends a lot on whether your friends and family are using the same apps. Otherwise, the conversations in the apps stall, which happened to me. And it can be a little distracting, to say the least, to have messages flying through a second or third app on the phone.

Here’s a guide to help you evaluate how they work before you commit to using one.

Adding Multimedia to Messages

One of the most popular message apps available is WhatsApp, which has been around since 2009, and runs on iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows phones. It costs 99 cents to download, and WhatsApp has said that it plans to introduce a small annual fee to users in some countries.

WhatsApp is super simple in design, and yet it goes beyond regular old text messages with options to send — in addition to photos and videos — audio notes, contact cards and an active map image that pinpoints your location. It pulls in local business data, so I was able to get specific and message a friend my location at a Subway sandwich shop.

WhatsApp has a big international user base; two of my most active WhatsApp friends included a regular international traveler, who was in Vietnam at the time, and a friend from Canada.

WhatsApp worked fine for me, and I’ve continued to use it with at least one friend who regularly pings me through the app. My only gripe about the app was that the photos I took and sent through the app weren’t saved to my iPhone’s camera roll.

Another new app for multimedia is called MessageMe. MessageMe launched last month, and is available on iPhone and Android phones. Unlike WhatsApp, MessageMe is free to download. And MessageMe lets you doodle on the images you send. I sent an ailing co-worker a picture of chicken soup I found through Google search, and scribbled on it: “Feel better!”

MessageMe also allows you to send song excerpts directly through the app. From there, the recipient can buy the song from iTunes or Google Play.

Of the two, I used WhatsApp more, mostly because I had more friends using the service. But I prefer MessageMe’s design and features.

Making Your Messages Disappear

A growing trend in messaging is sending images and text that will vanish after the recipient has had the chance to view them — something that addresses some privacy concerns and raises other issues, like illicit-photo sharing among teen users.

A well-known app with this core feature is Snapchat. Free to download, it’s available on iOS and Android devices.

With Snapchat, you snap a picture or video from the app, and then determine the length of time the viewer can see it, from one to 10 seconds. You send it off, and shortly after the recipient opens the message, it disappears. If you want to get creative, you can also doodle or scribble text on the photo message. One friend sent me a Snapchat of his poker hand with the text “Not Winning.”

I just don’t understand why I’d use this on a regular basis, although I see the appeal for people leaving digital footprints they are worried about others seeing. Usually if I share a smartphone photo with friends, it’s because something made me think of them, or it’s a particularly cool image. And I’m okay with those people having that picture.

And, let’s say I did want to share a self-combusting pic: Snapchat users still have the ability to capture a “screen shot” of the image sent to them, if they’re quick enough.

A newer app that offers disappearing messages is Burn Note, which was spawned from an email service of the same name. These are text-only messages with a view time of up to 120 seconds. The messages first appear as black boxes. Pressing on your phone’s touchscreen will unveil the text within the boxes.

Burn Note lets you create a password for conversations as an additional layer to ensure privacy. There’s also a checkbox at the bottom of the app that’s meant to prevent messages from being copied, but I was still able to capture a screen shot of these messages.

The bottom line is, even if a messaging app promises to erase your messages for you, there are still ways in which they can be saved.

Payments and Group Messages

Remember GroupMe, the app that made group messaging easy and then was acquired by Skype (which was acquired by Microsoft) in 2011? This app is still around, and despite the fact that others have crowded into the same space, it has some new features that are worth checking out.

The main feature of GroupMe, which is free to use, is that friends with different devices can all be on the same thread. So, even if you have an iPhone, one friend has an Android device and another is using a feature phone, you’ll all get the messages. Whether GroupMe uses data service or SMS, however, depends partly on the kind of device you’re using.

Prior to doing research for this column, I hadn’t actively used GroupMe for about a year, and I was surprised to find that I liked it better than before. This time, I started a group with three friends to organize upcoming weekend plans. It worked well for us, except for one friend who said that the deluge of messages used up all of the memory allowed for texts on her flip phone.

GroupMe now lets you create a tab among friends — let’s say you’re out to dinner, and someone comes up short — and charge everyone’s credit cards from the app, provided that they’ve attached their payment information to the app.

This isn’t a new concept. An app called Venmo, to name just one, allows shared bill payments via text message. But it’s new to GroupMe. I created a bill on the app and sent it to my friends, but I’d have to wait for two or more people to “split in” before I could collect from them.

GroupMe also has a new feature for photos, provided you’re using the GroupMe app and you’re not on a feature phone. If you and your friends share a series of photos during your group conversation, you can conveniently swipe to the left to see all of the pictures arranged in a gallery on the side, instead of swiping up through the conversation to find that one shared photo you liked.

A lot of these messaging apps are stepping on one another with feature sets: WhatsApp offers group messaging as well, and the creator of MessageMe says the company plans to introduce bill-splitting to the app.

So, is it worth it to use another messaging app aside from your phone’s built-in capabilities? It ultimately depends on how valuable the extra features are to you — and whether the people in your work or social life are using them, too.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that both MessageMe and WhatsApp have indicated they will introduce bill-splitting to their apps. While MessageMe plans to do so, WhatsApp’s co-founder has said the company believes mobile payments to be a possible area for monetization in the future.

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus