We’re in the middle of the “year of chat,” and I don’t know that we’ve ever had so many options to turn to when deciding which mobile messenger is the right one for our tastes. One of the mainstays of mobile messaging (and one that’s thus far exclusive to Apple devices) is iMessage, and in reviewing the app’s evolution since its inception on iOS devices years ago, it stands apart from the crowd in numerous, exceptional ways.
Considering just how many users on other operating systems are clamoring for iMessage accessibility, it’s hard to ignore the app’s prowess. In the following review, we’ll stack it up against some of the other, popular messaging services. In doing so, we’ll reveal some of what makes iMessage tick, and perhaps illustrate a few of the app’s flaws as well.
What’s particularly funny about iMessage is that many users, even many Apple users, don’t know what it is. I’ve seen friends with iPhones and iPads open up the App Store in confusion, searching for iMessage and coming away absolutely dumbfounded when they’re unable to find it. The reason they’re unable to is because it’s baked into the iOS operating system itself, and moreover, it’s a mainstay of the cross-platform ecosystem that exists between most products on the Apple hardware lineup. Whether you’re using an iPhone, iPad, Macbook, iMac, or even an Apple Watch, you have automatic access to iMessage (or “Messages,” as it’s occasionally referred to.)
That cross-platform compatibility begins and ends with Apple devices, however. In spite of years of begging and shouting for Apple to allow its most popular software applications to exist on non-Apple ecosystems (Windows, for example), there’s no sign that we should expect it anytime soon. Apart from Apple Music, iTunes, and QuickTime Player, Apple software is meant to be run natively only on its own devices.
As you’ll read in the review, however, this isn’t necessarily a shortcoming. A bummer if you don’t own any Apple devices, but not a fatal flaw in the least.
An unfilled absence on other devices hasn’t been ignored by other software companies, either. While you’re unable to get iMessage on Android or Windows devices, numerous competitors have brought their own offerings to bear, some of which might even be better overall than the iMessage app. We’ll let our own exploration of the app’s more prominent features guide such a verdict, but we will keep one thing in mind overall–iMessage is free to download, and apart from the standard cellular data fees that you’ll incur, free to use. Any competing app that we compare it to in this guide will meet those criteria as well.
We’ll break the review down into three categories: integration, features, and design. Even though almost everyone in the US is packing a smartphone in their pocket, it’s hardly the only device that we make heavy use of in our day-to-day lives. Thus, examining iMessage’s integration across multiple devices will be imperative.
Because many users haven’t explored iMessage to its fullest extent, many aren’t aware of the app’s plethora of features, or the nuance that makes them so flexible. We’ll go over everything that you can do with iMessage, as well as point out a few shortcomings. Finally, we’ll talk about design—a secondary consideration for many, but something that makes the app feel like Apple software.
No matter what type of Apple device you’re on, you will have some semblance of access to iMessage. From my own understanding, the only device in that entire lineup that doesn’t give you access is Apple TV, which wasn’t designed to support messaging features in the first place. Everything else can support synced integration, with your iPhone in the center. Since it’s tied to your phone number, messages received from your iPhone can be made to appear on any device tied to your Apple account, which will also allow you to send messages from any of those devices by using your iPhone as a conduit.
Cool, right? It’s here where we can compliment Apple on one of the longstanding benefits of working exclusively within its hardware ecosystem. If you’re working from your iPad or Macbook, you can calmly leave your phone in your pocket, and allow your messages to show up right on the device that you’re using. The same goes for your Apple Watch if you’re a wearable tech fan like me. When I get an incoming message while out running, I can use the “quick reply” menu on my Apple Watch to send a simple message to whoever has just messaged me.
You’ll find similar cross-platform features with other message apps, but none that is so functional and fluid as iMessage.
Text, pictures, video and audio. No matter which of these you’re looking to send to one of your contacts (even if it’s some combination of these several things) is possible within iMessage. This isn’t necessarily a standalone feature any longer–most messaging application support several media standards–but when combined with iMessage’s integration across multiple types of devices, it gives the app an edge that’s exceptionally difficult to compete with.
You’re not limited to those messaging elements, either. You can send your location, contact cards, web links, and anything else under the sun (as long as it’s supported by separate apps) with only a few quick taps, thanks to the concise design of the iMessage app. Simply tap the “share” in any supporting apps, tap the iMessage icon, and your information will be automatically dropped into a message to the intended contact.
If you’re in need of a group chat feature, iMessage has this angle covered as well. You can create messaging groups that consist of as many contacts as you’d like, and even give the group a custom name, to better find it within the iMessage app. Even within a group chat, you can send the same types of media and content as you can when crafting a message for a single recipient.
Of course, the glaring feature that’s lacking from iMessage is video calling, which is taken care of by the equally accessible FaceTime app. Apple has its bases covered, but meanwhile, much of the competition has integrated video calling right into their messaging apps, without requiring any awkward switching on part of the user.
Of course, one of the things that make iMessage immediately appealing to many people is the same thing that attracts people to the Apple brand in the first place–it’s aesthetic. Unburdened by advertising and unnecessary graphics, most Apple software is as minimalistic as it can be, designed with unintrusive notifications and quick menu navigation.
iMessage is no different, and everything from its rounded chat bubbles to the organized and spare message history list is conformed to fit in with the rest of Apple’s software. Whether you’re on a Mac, an iPhone, or even looking at the small screen of your Apple Watch, iMessage looks like it belongs there. For this reason, we can’t be too upset with Apple for wanting to limit its applications to the company’s own hardware–it would lose a lot of aesthetic cohesiveness if it were ported over to other devices.
The proprietary software angle also allows iMessage to be exceptionally fast, zipping through menus as quickly as you can swipe them, and loading mixed media into your messages with only a few necessary taps. Much of the Apple aesthetic is about letting your software be an extension of yourself–it doesn’t draw attention to itself, and instead works as quickly and efficiently as you need, to see your tasks to completion.
Alternatives to iMessages
All of these features have been attracting people to Apple’s hardware and software line for years, which means that competing developers have had plenty of time to embrace those appealing elements in their own software.
Facebook Messenger has clearly taken some inspiration from iMessage. It combines the aesthetic of its social media parent with the speed and fluidity of an Apple app, while also baking in video calling that you can access right from the app itself–no messy FaceTime switching required. For this reason, it’s the number one recommendation that I usually point people towards when they’re looking for a good iMessage alternative.
Another close-range competitor is WhatsApp, which has weathered the mobile messenger industry for quite a while as well. Its primary function is to replace the SMS text messaging standard that comes bundled with any mobile device, and it mostly manages to succeed at doing this. It’s still missing video calling (much like iMessage), but it does have a handy web portal that allows you to sync your phone’s WhatsApp app (never becomes less fun to say) and your computer.
All in all, though, nothing can compete with iMessage in the areas that it excels, and this is largely thanks to the very thing that keeps it off of other platforms–Apple’s proprietary development. While people may wish for a way to access it on Windows or Android devices, the simple fact of the matter is that iMessage wouldn’t run as well on the non-Apple hardware. Neither would GarageBand and neither would FaceTime.
This has placed iMessage in something of a niche; a place where it has grown and developed in a controlled way, but also an extremely effective way. If you’re using an Apple device, it’s difficult to find anything that functions nearly as efficiently as iMessage, which we hope to have demonstrated in this review! If you have any further questions about iMessage or any tips for using it, don’t hesitate to share in the comments below!