With the release of iOS 10 for iPhone and iPad, there is a whole lot more you can do with Apple Messages. If you use the Messages app (the app is called Messages; the service is iMessage), you might have already received a few texts that are more than just text. Animated GIFs, special effects, a surfeit of visual stimulants are all now possible. The experience is, to say the least, more playful than before, although there are some more serious uses, too, such as augmenting productivity.
If you learn the basics of what you can do in the revamped Messages app and also get to know the strengths and weaknesses of it compared with other apps, it can help you decide which service is best for your needs.
What’s New in Apple Messages?
To get the new Messages app and features, you first need to download and install iOS 10 (or later). Once your phone is upgraded, you’ll notice the interface for writing a message is different.
Send Photos and Videos (New Interface)
Above the keyboard are icons for a camera, a heart with two fingers, and a button resembling the App Store icon. To the right is the text field for typing your message.
The camera icon lets you take a photo, shoot video, or select media from your Photo Library to send. The look is new, but the functionality is the same as before.
The next icon, the heart with two fingers, lets you draw, draw on top of a photo or video, and make special animated drawings, like a beating heart. Apple calls this Digital Touch. If you tap two fingers on the screen, for example, it makes a set of kissing lips. If you tap and hold two fingers, you’ll get a beating heart. Tap, hold, and drag down with two fingers, and you’ll make a breaking heart.
When you send these Digital Touch images to people who don’t have iOS 10, such as iPhones running an older operating system or Android users, the recipients will see the basic image, but it won’t be animated.
Be careful playing with this feature! You don’t have a chance to preview your Digital Touch image before it sends. Once you lift your fingers, there it goes! Just be careful when choosing a recipient to be your guinea pig while you’re learning how to use it.
The Apps Store icon lets you put special content into messages, such as music files, animated GIFs, stickers (i.e., images that are more like clipart than anything else), and more. Some of this special content comes from Apple, and some comes from other integrated apps, such as JibJab, which creates animate GIFs. For example, the OpenTable app now integrates with Messages so that you can send restaurant suggestions to friends, ask them to vote on a place to eat, and a book a table, all without leaving the Messages app.
To get a good amount of variety, you’ll need to download compatible apps. Some apps you already have installed on your phone may have special content for Messages. Tap the App Store icon, and then tap the four circles in the lower left to start looking for some.
Unlike Digital Touch content, stickers, animated GIFs, and other content from the App Store show up in preview before they send, where you can include a text message alongside them, too.
Another addition to Messages app is the ability to add special effects, such as lasers or floating balloons that appear behind the messages and fill the screen. When you’re ready to send a message, instead of tapping on the send button, tap and hold it. Some options should appear above. Drag your finger up to the one you want, and it will be added.
It’s a feature that’s supposed to be available on the iPhone 7 and all phone models, although I couldn’t get it to work on an older device (iPhone 5c) that doesn’t support 3D Touch. My colleague confirms that he was able to make it happen on an iPhone 6, however, which also does not have 3D Touch.
Enhanced Predictive Text
Predictive text is now permanently enabled in iOS 10, but it’s smarter. Predictive text used to only suggest words that you were typing or words that might follow the one you just finished typing. Now it also suggests richer information. For example, if I type, “George’s phone number is” the predictive text feature looks in my Contacts app for “George” and suggests phone numbers. I can quickly tap on one of the suggestions instead of trying to type or copy and paste a long phone number.
Tap Back, Handwriting, Emoji Suggestions
Other new features let you respond graphically to someone’s message, the same way you might “like” or “love” a Facebook post. Tap on the message you received, and six options will appear above it: heart, thumbs up, thumbs down, “ha ha,” double exclamation marks, and a question mark. You can also write a text message by hand (turn the phone sideways with auto-rotate lock off) or select pre-written notes that look handwritten.
When you pull up your emjoi board now, Messages highlights words that you’ve already typed if it thinks it has a suitable emoji replacement for them.
Pros and Cons of iMessage
Jamming all these new options into the Messages app has made it clunkier for sure. There are clearly some early problems, too. As mentioned, I couldn’t get the special effects to work at all on an iPhone 5c. And Digital Touch messages send before they give you a chance to make sure they’re right.
Another ongoing issue I have with iMessage is that you can have multiple identifiers tied to your iMessage account, and depending which identifier someone uses could result in your getting a message late or never at all. For example, my iMessage account is tied to one phone number that’s temporarily suspended (I use it every few months when traveling), a second phone number, and the same email address I use for my Apple ID. If friends try to message me by way of my suspended phone number because that’s what’s in their address book, I won’t see the message until the number is re-enabled. Meanwhile, my friend won’t get a bounceback or failure message. So Messages isn’t a great app if you’ve ever changed your phone number.
My sister, who also uses iMessage, only has her phone number tied to the Messages app on her phone, but her email address is tied to the app she uses on her laptop. If I accidentally address a message to her email instead of her phone number she won’t see my messages until she opens her computer and launches Messages there. But when I look in my Contacts list, all I can tell is that she’s using iMessage. I don’t have any details about which ID to use.
Another benefit of iMessage is read receipts, which you can disable. Read receipts let you know that the recipient has opened your message. WhatsApp does the same thing.
One benefit of iMessage that I glossed over is that you can use it on Mac. You’re not limited to using it on your phone. WeChat also has desktop apps. You can get at your Facebook Messenger chats from Facebook.com or Messenger.com (although you can’t see messages by going to Facebook.com on a mobile browser, which I find endlessly exasperating).
Alternative Messaging Apps
Some other messaging apps have a similar problem to iMessage in regards to IDs. With several apps, your account is necessarily tied to your phone number. WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram all require you to authenticate the app via a phone number, and that phone number must be the same phone number of the device you have in hand.
I have two phones, though. So I ended up with two installations of WhatsApp that don’t sync with one another. It makes it tricky to remember which phone I need to keep up conversations with different friends.
With other apps, that isn’t the case. With Facebook Messenger, for instance, people can find you on the app easily if you are friends on Facebook, and adding a phone number is entirely optional. Wickr also makes it optional to add an email address and phone number. By default, you’re only visible by the ID you create on that platform.
I asked via a Twitter poll about favorite messaging apps, and some people who chose “Other” followed up by telling me they liked Snapchat or Twitter best, which I found unusual because although both services have a direct message function, I don’t think of either of them as being messaging apps per se. I see them both as more social networking apps, and therefore I think about their content and the importance of it differently.
What’s your favorite messaging app? Why?
— Jill E Duffy (@jilleduffy) September 15, 2016
At least one person also called out Slack, a platform that was created for “teams” but does stand in for messaging among friends sometimes, as long as you can convince people to join your team. With Slack, every time you use the app you first have to log into a specific team account. Having too many accounts causes a real headache. The nice thing about Slack, though, is that it gives you the ability to pay attention to or ignore messages at your discretion. Slack is all about notifications, which you can really customize. So if there’s a group chat about something you’re only tangentially interested in, you can silence those notifications. If there are keywords that are important, you can set up a notification that will alert you any time those keywords are used.
From the perspective of how easy it is to find and add friends, Facebook Messenger remains one of the best apps. I personally don’t like it, and I refuse to install it on my phone except for testing purposes because of how much information it collects. But at least once a week, someone I know (usually an acquaintance) messages me through Facebook. It feels reminiscent of having my phone number listed in the White Pages.
The new Messages has some fun features to explore, even if they are not super smooth yet. Just remember that it’s not the only messaging app for iPhone, and there are other ways to reach people that may be better for you and your friends.