Is there a difference between the social networking you do online and the interactivity that takes place through text messages and real-time online chatting? If there is, the new Facebook Messenger app for Android will immediately make sense to you. Others, on the other hand, will see it as a needless second app that largely duplicates select features of the original Facebook for Android app (free, 3.5 stars). Facebook Messenger, which was developed by Facebook itself, compartmentalizes the more immediate activities of SMS texting and instant messaging by putting those two functions into a dedicated app. It’s similar in many ways to BlackBerry Messenger, the private instant messaging service that lets BlackBerry smartphone users text-chat with one another, only Facebook Messenger is confined to the world of Facebook rather than one platform (in this case Android, though there is an iPhone version, too).
Optional alerts, or push notifications, let you know when incoming messages are received, just as your phone does with ordinary text messages. All the features of the original Facebook for Android app, including Chat, are still available—they haven’t disappeared—so if you don’t want a second Facebook app, you don’t have to install Messenger. But there are a few reasons you might want it.
Faster, More Accurate Numbers
According to Facebook, the Messenger client works faster than the instant messaging tools in the original Facebook app for Android, although in testing the app, I couldn’t see a noticeable difference. The time it took to send and receive a message from Messenger to Messenger versus Facebook app to Facebook app was so slight (less than half a second), I can’t say the difference wasn’t caused by human error. All my test messages came through in less than three seconds, regardless of which apps I used. The Messenger to Messenger times were all under two-and-a-half seconds.
The real advantages of using the new Facebook Messenger app are that 1) it includes SMS (texting) as an option when sending a message, and 2) it draws phone numbers from your Facebook connections’ when those people have made them available rather than contacts list in your iPhone, reducing the chance that you have an outdated or incorrect phone number. Other services have combined SMS with instant messaging before, so Facebook Messenger isn’t wholly new in this aspect. What makes it special for most people, however, is that it leverages their Facebook network. One of the often-overlooked strengths of Facebook is that it’s a central source of data about your friends, including their phone numbers, email addresses, and whereabouts (and maybe that creeps you out). If you want to send a text message to a friend but don’t have her phone number stored in your phone, you can quickly send her a Facebook message instead. And if she’s added her phone number to Facebook and granted the appropriate permissions, the app will automatically pull up her number as an option, in case you would prefer to send her a text.
Push Notifications and Location Services
One feature I especially liked in the Facebook Messenger Android app is the ability to not only turn on push notifications (alerts for incoming messages), but turn them off for a select amount of time. You can choose to keep push notifications on permanently, or switch them off for one hour, or turn them off until 8 a.m. the following day, if you want some peace and quiet overnight.
Glitches and Bugs
In testing the app, I found two minor bugs and one major omission. First, when I sent messages via SMS to my friends’ phones, their Facebook profile pictures didn’t turn up. Instead, I saw the stand-in blue and white silhouette, the default image you see in Facebook when a user doesn’t have a profile picture. When I sent messages via Facebook chat, each person’s profile picture did appear next to the conversation.
Who Needs Two Facebook Apps?
If you spend a lot of time communicating with friends from your mobile device, the Facebook Messenger app is worth downloading. I personally like compartmentalizing certain aspects of social networking, so I like the idea of having instant messages and Facebook text messages in their own area, cordoned off from the more “casual” and less immediate activities that I partake in on the network. If you prefer a one-stop-shop for everything Facebook has to offer, the only things you’re giving up in not downloading the new app are the ability to find more people’s mobile phone numbers and perhaps speed, although the original app was fast enough for me.