Given my recent disappointment with the way Google integrated SMS texting into Hangouts I went searching for a replacement to the stock messaging app on my Galaxy S3. The recent update to Android 4.3 added some nice little tweaks to the app, but nothing extraordinary. This takes advantage of one of the great features of Android: you can customize just about every aspect of your phone.
TL; DR: I settled on 8sms.
I looked at several aspects of each app. In general they all provided a lot more functionality than the stock app. The most useful was the ability to pop-up a window over whatever else I was doing when a new message came in.
Every app, including the stock app on my Samsung Galaxy S3, had the following features:
- Send and receive SMS & MMS to individuals or groups (although MMS seemed to pose problems for some apps, but I’m not a big user of MMS)
- Integration with contacts to select recipients and show contact photos
- Drafts, Locked/protected messages, and Scheduled messages
- Blocked or SPAM message filters
- Quick send templates
- Basic Android notifications, including previews
The stock app was also able to show previews on the phone’s lock screen. Not every replacement was able to do this. Nor do you necessarily want to, since the point of locking your phone is keeping people out of it so showing message contents on the lock screen is counter-productive.
The apps I tried, in this order, were: GO SMS Pro, 8sms, Textra SMS, chomp SMS, Handcent SMS, Easy SMS, and Ninja SMS. Also important to mention are two other apps I rely on: MightyText and SMS Backup+.
Finally, I’d like to throw Fongo into the mix since unlike other VoIP/messaging apps you will get a real working just-like-a-telco phone number with Fongo! Their messenger is pretty basic but it’s interesting for two things, you can interact with non-Fongo users via real SMS messages (but not MMS due to uncooperative telcos); and Fongo can pick-up incoming SMS messages from your underlying phone (but they always send via Fongo). I’m sure Fongo’s users would appreciate the features of some of the other Android Messengers, so either Fongo should add them or somehow allow other messengers to integrate with Fongo.
GO SMS Pro
The app is nicely laid out and the lines are clean, but they follow their own style (which is fine if you’re already using GO apps). They have a lot of themes to choose from, and even a theme roller to create your own. Almost every visual aspect of the app is configurable, including the chat-heads pop-ups and the notification bar icon.
Yes, there are chat-heads when you receive a new message, with your contact’s picture in a circle and tag showing the number of un-read messages from the contact. You can click on the chat-head to open a floating window over what-ever you are doing to read the message and send a quick reply; or you can expand the floating window for a longer reply. You can also delete the message and send it back to the inbox.
The most interesting features of this app are that you can send messages to other GO SMS Pro users via the internet rather than as text messages. This feature was previously a separate app/add-on called GO Chat but was recently integrated into GO SMS. Of course this works best if a significant number of your contacts use GO SMS Pro too – which mine don’t so I didn’t test this feature.
You can also send text messages via their web site, using your phone as a proxy. But to be honest I was never able to get this to work, and I assume that’s related to the recent integration of GO Chat with GO SMS.
One of the in-app purchases you can make is to use your GO SMS account to send all kinds of attachments via the internet, as well as make backups and encrypt your messages. The other purchase you can make is an all-access pass to the themes library. Other than that the app is free to use, but does show ads on the main screen.
I ran into one security issue with GO SMS Pro: if my phone was securely locked and I received a message I could click on the Emergency Call button on my lock screen (which opens a dialler I can use without unlocking my phone) but the chat-head would then appear over the dialler and I could interact with it – even send messages – but I still had not unlocked my phone!
This is a port of the stock messaging app meant specifically for people on Android 4.4 who don’t like the Hangouts SMS experience (and the lack of Hangouts MMS experience!). It was developed by ThinkLeft based on the Android and CyanogenMod sources.
Given this app’s parentage it’s not surprising that it resembles the stock message app almost exactly and adds very little to it. The most interest thing about this app is actually the detailed home page, and particularly the explanations provided for default versus Stand-alone installations.
There are no chat-heads with this app, but when you receive a message you are immediately presented with a floating window in-which to read and reply to the message. If there are multiple unread messages you swipe sideways to read them all (the floating window can be deactivated, as can all the other notifications). If your phone is securely locked then the pop-up will be waiting for you when you unlock the phone.
The other cool thing I discovered with this app was the gestured-based templates. When you create a template text you associate a gesture with it that you draw on the screen. When composing a message you simply reproduce that gesture and voila! your template is inserted into the message.
This is the little brother of chomp SMS from Delicious Inc. It’s a very minimalistic messenger that’s barebones out of the box. Out of the box it provides quick-access via a permanent notification icon bar; and per-contact configurations. And it is FAST! Without any time spent doing fancy visual stuff this was the fastest messaging client I tried.
The lack of Emoticons or Emoji (available as an add-on) was annoying but what really bothered me was the pop-up response window only works while the phone is unlocked. Interestingly, Emoji in messages sent to you display properly, but you have no way of inserting them yourself without the plugin.
If your needs a basic, and all you want is speed, then Textra is the way to go. But the moment you want more, Textra will be lacking. Add-ons are a fine solution, but not really for something that everyone considers basic behaviour.
So this is the big brother of Textra (in a loving kind of way – not in a creepy NSA kind of way) by Delicious Inc. There are some obvious similarities but chomp does have a lot more features. It shares the same penchant for add-ons as Textra does and in this case I installed both the themes and the emoji.
The most interesting thing about chomp is it has it’s own SMS gateway. This means if you don’t have a texting plan or you’re travelling and SMS would be expensive you can, for a fee, use chomp’s gateway to send your messages at much lower cost! You can also support their efforts by buying a license for chomp, which as near as I can tell amounts to a donation – there are no additional features un-locked with the license.
I did have a security issue with chomp though: the new message notification pop-up window would be displayed even when my phone was securely locked!!! This is even more serious than the issue I had with GO SMS Pro since it appeared without any intervention on my part!
Handcent is the product of the Handcent Market, and it is an extremely full featured messenger! It’s only rival in this list is GO SMS Pro. In fact, my first impression when I opened it was that I had re-installed GO SMS Pro!!!
Handcent also features it’s own messaging system, which only works between other Handcent users but avoids the cost of carrier messages (if those messages are more expensive than data for you). There’s also a my.hancent.com web portal. And if you’re wondering how they monetize their efforts you’ll find different levels of subscription on the web site that open up enhanced functionality. Basic SMS/MMS is free though.
I didn’t find any chat-heads in this messenger – which is fine with me since I was quite happy to have the quick reply window open up directly. I found the UI cleaner, nicer and better organized than GO SMS Pro. I also found the web site worked better – though not perfectly – than GO SMS Pro’s.
If you’re not in the GO ecosystem but you want a lot of features than Handcent is probably your best bet. There’s an seemingly endless list of plug-ins to further enhance the functionality, from thousands of themes and fonts to location sharing.
Easy SMS comes from Pansi Studio and walks the middle ground in terms of features and presentation. They also rely on plug-ins for a number of things, in particular Emoji and languages. Their web site was inaccessible at the time of this review, so I’m not sure if there’s anything additional there.
The app is monetized either via on-screen ads near the bottom of the screen, a one-time upgrade to remove the ads, and a network to promote other games and apps (presumably with revenue sharing).
The app displays either a conversation view or an inbox view of your messages. In conversation mode all the messages from a single contact a grouped together and the most recently contacted contact is at the top of the conversation page. In inbox mode you see the individual message arrange from most recent to oldest top-down.
This messenger from Ninja Apps really focuses on the chat-heads. They get their own configuration section and threre are a lot of preferences to configure. Mind you a lot of them only become available in the paid version.
Ninja SMS also features a pop-up floating response window that puts a lot of functionality close at hand and is one of most functional pop-up windows of this group.
There is a lot you can configure here, but one thing that’s missing is smooth lines. The colours are all very stark and the edges sharp – no rounded corners here (except some of the chat-heads).
I did have one issue, the MMS settings were not imported and I wasn’t able to receive any MMS messages until I auto-detected the settings. It’s the first time I’ve had to do this and I was quite surprised by it.
This incredible tool lets me send messages from my computer (via their web site) or tablet by bouncing them off my phone. There is also a Gmail extension to even more easily integrate texting into my work flow! You can see entire conversations and view media on the big screen!
You all know you need backups, so I’m not going to get into that. What’s cool about this app is it uses your GMail account to store the messages and your Google Calendar to log the calls! It’ such genius you wonder why Android doesn’t already have this built-in!
In the end I’ve settled on 8sms. I like the lineage of this messenger; I really got to like the gesture templates; there are no 3rd party integration or plug-ins to deal with; and there’s no annoying advertising. It also works well with Cover, the lock screen replacement.
Cross-posted on Schultzter’s blog