Which Messaging App Should You Use?

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There are so many ways to send a message these days. Google Voice recently added texts, group messaging, and transcribed voicemail after not updating their app for *five years,* bringing the number of Google’s messaging apps to four (including Hangouts, Allo, and Duo). Facebook’s got two apps (WhatsApp and Messenger). Microsoft’s got two apps (GroupMe and Skype). Apple also kind of has two apps (iMessage and FaceTime).

That doesn’t include all of the other, independent messaging apps out there like Viber, WeChat, LINE, Telegram, and Kakaotalk, to name a few.

It’s true. We live in a time of TOO MANY messaging apps. So if you’re feeling lost in this ~brave new world~ of online communication, here’s a guide to the best platforms.

The ~*ultimate*~ cross-platform messaging app is WhatsApp.

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WhatsApp (free, iOS, Android, Windows phone and web) is the Ultimate Messaging App. It has a giant user base, is super fast, works on many different devices (even Blackberry!), has an easy-to-understand interface, and provides end-to-end encryption.

Plus, the Facebook-owned app has over one billion users on its platform, so it’s likely that some of your friends already using it.

WhatsApp offers free text messaging, group messaging, voice, and video calls over cellular data or Wi-Fi. It has a simple, easy-to-understand interface, without the overwhelming bells and whistles of the Viber and Line apps. The app is also fast. Multimedia (like photos, videos, audio messages and files up to 100MB) are compressed automatically by the app, so they send quickly even when connection is poor.

One of my favorite features is the ability to “star” messages with important reference information and access all of those starred messages in one, convenient place.

You can send and receive WhatsApp text messages from your mobile phone or the web. There is a native desktop app, but it’s essentially a portal to the web app. Unfortunately, you can’t voice or video call from the web.

The app is encrypted end-to-end by default, but it can record metadata like the date, timestamp, and phone numbers associated with a message, according to a recently revised privacy policy. The app also announced last year that it was going to start sharing user information with Facebook, though it did let users opt out before agreeing to the updated terms of service. If you didn’t opt out before updating, you got an additional 30 days to make your choice.

If you – and most of your contacts – have iPhones, it’s a no brainer: use iMessage.

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For iPhone users, iMessage ticks all the boxes.

You don’t have to sign up for anything. It’s the default messaging app on all iPhones, unlike on some Android devices, where there can be up to four messaging apps to choose from (Hangouts? Allo? Duo? The cell carrier’s own messaging app?).

It works seamlessly with FaceTime video and audio calling over data or a cell connection. It’s encrypted end-to-end (although, only when you message other iPhone users). It works on your phone, it works on your Mac, and it works on your iPad. It lets you send lasers to your friends. It automatically sends texts via iMessage when it’s appropriate, and regular SMS to those outside the “blue bubble.” It can handle all kinds of media: GIFs, contacts, location, links, photos, videos, and voice memos.

You can use Siri to check messages or send new messages, and install integrations from the new iMessage app store. You can also access Yelp, Venmo, and Dropbox without ever leaving the Messages app.

Sure, there’s still room for improvement. Namely, lack of compatibility with ANY OTHER PLATFORMS (ugh). Apple can also collect some metadata, like the numbers you enter into iMessage, which are sent to Apple servers to determine whether or not the message should be sent through iMessage or SMS. Apple retains that data for up to 30 days, and can be compelled to hand it over to law enforcement with a subpoena or court order.

If iMessage were cross-platform, it might be the Perfect Messaging App. But until then, it’s the best option for those with iPhones to communicate with other peeps with iPhones.

If you prefer features over security, plus texting, audio, *and* video chat, here are some options.

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In addition to WhatsApp (read above), Facebook Messenger and Hangouts are some other apps to consider.

Facebook Messenger is more feature-rich, but doesn’t have as many privacy and security settings.

The messaging app by WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook Messenger (free, iOS, Android, the web), has some pretty killer features, like being able to use high-definition video and audio calling on mobile or web. Messenger is unique because you can send money directly through the app in the US. There are also bots built into Messenger that can help you diagnose that weird rash or shop for you. One thing to note: users know when you’ve read their messages (and vice versa) and there’s no straightforward way to disable read receipts, sadly.

The app recently rolled out a new, fully encrypted feature called “Secret Conversations,” which ensures that the message’s content can’t be read by law enforcement or the company itself. The reason why Messenger is only for the ~moderately paranoid~ is because the encryption feature is opt-in, and needs to be turned on for every conversation, unlike WhatsApp, which automatically encrypts every chat by default. Additionally, “Secret Conversations” only encrypts text messages, photos, and videos sent in the thread, but it doesn’t protect audio and video calls.

Google Hangouts is fine, but isn’t as secure.

Hangouts (free, iOS, Android, and web) puts text messaging, audio calling, and video calling in one place – but it does not offer full encryption, so Google can wiretap conversations at the request of law enforcement. You’ll need to use Google Allo’s incognito mode for messaging and Google Duo for video chatting with end-to-end encryption.

And unlike WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, which allow you to sign up with just your phone number and without a Facebook account, Hangouts requires a Google account.

If you need end-to-end encryption, plus texting, audio, and video chat, here are some options.

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Looking to stay secure? Good for you!!

For text and audio, use Signal, an app endorsed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Signal (free, iOS and Android) is an app for messaging and audio calls that saw a 400% increase in downloads after President Trump’s election. The app is encrypted end-to-end, offers Snapchat-style expiring messages, and doesn’t store messages or your “metadata” (like the date, timestamp, and phone numbers associated with a message you’ve sent).

Signal leaves their code open to review, so anyone can audit the software and verify that its privacy settings retain strong encryption and best practices. In October 2016, an independent security audit by five researches from the University of Oxford, “found no major flaws” in the design of Signal’s cryptographic protocol.

But nobody’s perfect. As my colleague Hamza Shaban pointed out, Signal requires your phone number and access to your address book when you sign up, which means people know if you’re using the app. Signal’s creator, Moxie Marlinspike, suggests signing up with a throwaway Google Voice number as a workaround for concerned parties. It’s also important to note that while your communications can only be seen by you and your message’s recipient, the app doesn’t notify you if your recipient has taken a screenshot of your messages. Signal disables screenshotting by default on Android, but turning off screenshots is not an option on iOS.

For video calling, you can turn to WhatsApp or Google Duo, both of which offer end-to-end encryption for calls.

Neither Facebook nor Google (the parent company of WhatsApp and Google Duo, respectively) can wiretap your communications if given a law enforcement request. That is not true, however, of those company’s other messaging apps, Messenger or Hangouts. WhatsApp and Google Duo do not require you to have a Facebook or Google account, respectively. New users can simply sign up with their phone number.

If you just need a simple messenger for texts, here’s what you should consider.

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In addition to WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, there’s Google Allo (free, iOS and Android). It’s a new messaging app that comes with Google Assistant, a smart artificial intelligence-powered bot, built into the chat experience itself.

Google Assistant can draft “Smart Replies” on your behalf or recommend restaurants nearby if it detects you’re chatting about dinner. But you’ll have to disable Google Assistant if you want to take advantage of the app’s end-to-end encryption feature, “Incognito mode.” It’s turned off by default, so you need to initiate “Go incognito” every time you start a conversation that’s more discreet.

Allo lets you send photos, pictures, videos, and audio messages – but it doesn’t have voice or video chat. For audio calling over the internet, you’ll need to use Google Hangouts (which does not use end-to-end encryption) or Google Voice, and for video calling, you’ll want to use Google Duo (which does use end-to-end encryption). This is all so confusing that you should probably just use WhatsApp.

If you need a simple messenger for texts and end-to-end encryption, here are some secure apps.

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Signal is my top pick for encrypted communications, but another option is
Wickr (free, iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows), a messaging-only app offers most of Signal’s security features. Unlike Signal, Wickr doesn’t require a phone number. Users can sign up with a unique username instead, which protects those who don’t want their identities linked to the service. Unfortunately, Wickr’s code is open to review, and it doesn’t have as many users as Signal.

What about Telegram?

Telegram is a messaging-only platform that is so confident in its app’s security, it’s offering $300,000 to any hacker who can break into the platform’s encrypted protocol. Still, cryptography experts say that Telegram isn’t as secure as it seems. The app uses a different encryption technology than platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, which stirred some controversy in a Hacker News thread when the app first launched. Telegram launched an FAQ page and published their documentation for public audit in response, but I’d stay away from the app for now.