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WhatsApp, Kik, Viber or ReTXT: Which third-party messenger is right for you?

Whether you're more the practical type that just wants standard messaging features or someone who loves spicing up your conversations with something extra, this collection has the app for you.

James Martin/CNET

There is no shortage of third-party messaging apps in either the iTunes App Store or the Google Play Store and it's pretty easy to see why. While every smartphone has a default messaging app, none have many extras.

Sure, you can send photos and videos, and probably emoticons, but beyond that the default chat apps are pretty bare. To its credit, Apple has made strides with iOS' Messages app with features such as being able to send your location and voice memos, while Android will let you send contacts and other business-related tasks, but there's not much fun in that.

Fortunately, third-party messaging apps are mostly free, offer fun extras, and some even have added features like encryption to keep your messages secure. All use data, so any texting limits you have with your carrier don't apply and the ones that make calls are free for people who have the app.

Feature comparison

Obviously, a text messaging app has to let you send text messages, and adding photos and videos is more or less the standard with these type of apps. But it's the extras like locations, contacts, and even doodles that set some of these apps apart. On the other hand, you may be someone who is uninterested in stickers and gifs, so this chart will let you zero in on the things you need and the things you don't.

WhatsApp Messenger Kik Viber ReTXT
Text messages Yes Yes Yes Yes
Phone calls Yes No Yes No
Photos Yes Yes Yes Yes
Videos Yes Yes Yes Yes
Audio clips/voice memos Yes No Yes Yes
Video calls No No Yes No
Sketching/drawing No Yes Yes No
Locations Yes No Yes Yes
Share contacts Yes No Yes Yes
Special Graphics/Stickers No Yes Yes No
Emoticons default keyboard Yes Yes default keyboard
Subscription Yes ($0.99/year) No No Yes ($0.99/year)
Encryption No No No Yes
Read receipts Yes Yes Yes Yes
In-app purchases Yes Yes Yes No

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James Martin/CNET

WhatsApp Messenger

Free; iOS, Android, Windows Phone

WhatsApp has been in the third-party text messenger business for a long time, and even if you're not using it, chances are a lot of your friends are. The app has an extremely easy setup because you don't have to add buddies or invite people; WhatsApp Messenger scans your contacts for other users of the app and lets you start a conversation on your own.

WhatsApp shows your chats in little text bubbles, gives you a time stamp for messages, notifies you when a text has been viewed by your recipient and lets you include photos, audio notes and videos within your conversations. You can also change your background and send your GPS location to an interactive map. You can use premade away notes such as "I'm busy," "Available" or even "My battery is about to die," and you can block specific contacts from within the app. You also can easily send a friend's contact information to another user without leaving the app. So, while the app is not leaps and bounds ahead of other messaging apps, there are some nice extra features here.

It's important to note that WhatsApp is free for the first year of use, but then you'll need to sign up for subscription at 99 cents per year. But even though free is always better, I think a dollar a year (at the current exchange rate, that's about £0.65 or AU$1.25) is easily worth it for what you get.

Where it excels

  • A lot of people already use it so you don't have to convince as many people to download it.
  • Location maps look natural inline and let you tap to get more info.
  • You can make free calls to others who have the app.
  • You can customize the look by changing backgrounds.

Where it falls flat

  • You can't make video calls.
  • It has no special graphics other than emoticons.
  • It doesn't have strong encryption.

Best for: People who know that their friends already use the app. Also, it's great for sending texts and making international calls to others who have the app.


James Martin/CNET

Kik

Free; iOS, Android, Windows Phone

Kik is a messaging app that's much more about fun than it is about productivity. Yes, it has the regular messaging features and you can easily add photos and videos like most apps, but the extras here are more for a younger audience and not what you get with the other apps in this collection.

I noticed right away that Kik didn't have the ability to send your location or contacts. Instead, it's set up for having fun with things like stickers, the ability to sketch, add the latest viral videos and memes, and more. One really useful feature is the ability to perform an image search from within the app. It also has an assortment of original emoticons, but the ones you can use for free are not much different from what you get on your default keyboard.

And that's the other thing about Kik. It has its own currency called Kik Points (KP) that you use to buy sticker packs and special emoticons you can't find anywhere else. You don't buy Kik points with cash, though. You earn them by completing surveys, visiting specific websites, or signing up for services from one of Kik's partners. In other words, it's a way for Kik to make money without billing the users of the app.

Where it excels

  • It has a huge number of things you can add to your messages, like stickers, icons, doodles, memes and more.
  • You can perform an image search from within the app to add images to the conversation easily.
  • It has its own in-app browser to find other content.

Where it falls flat

  • Lack of location-adding and contact features make it less useful for working folks.
  • The requirement of using Kik Points to buy features means you'll need to jump through hoops to get that unique zombie emoticon.

Best for: Students or groups of friends who like to keep the conversation going continuously with lots of fun stuff to add


viberpromo.jpg
James Martin/CNET

Viber

Free; iOS, Android, Windows Phone

I recently reviewed Viber and found it to have the most useful features I've seen so far in a messaging app. It's excellent for messaging and calling your friends for free around the globe and you can even make video calls.

Sending a message is just like other apps, with balloons for each of the people chatting, and you can set up group texts for up to 100 participants. You can create an audio clip by touching the microphone, then touching and holding a big button in the bottom center to record. You also can send photos and videos, and you can send your location.

For some fun, there is a doodle feature, which lets you pick a brush size and color, then draw on the screen to send little doodles to your friends. You also get a good assortment of stickers for free, but can buy themed sticker packs if you're interested.

But what sets Viber apart from most third party messaging apps is the ability to make both audio and video calls and you can do it on a 3G connection or better. The app uses your regular phone number, and you can call anyone around the globe for free provided they also have the app. In my testing, call quality was excellent and even sounded better than regular calls on my iPhone.

You'll have to pay (through in-app purchase) if you want to call landlines or people who don't have the app, but it has a guide which shows how much it will cost you depending on the country.

Where it excels

  • You can make free calls to other people who have the app (like WhatsApp) and you can make free video calls.
  • Both audio and video calls are high quality even without a Wi-Fi connection.
  • It has its own assortment of high-quality, original emoticons.
  • It has plenty of stickers included for just about any situation, and you can buy more if you want themed sets.

Where it falls flat

  • The Public Chat features let you browse subjects and enter a conversation, but you can't participate (coming in a later update).
  • Not a lot of people use it.

Best for: People who want to message, or make audio or video calls internationally for free.


retxtpromo.jpg
James Martin/CNET

ReTXT

Free; iOS and Android

ReTXT is the newcomer to the collection having only been out for a few weeks, but in my review, I really liked the unique features you can't find in the other apps of this collection.

It does all the usual things such as letting you send photos and video, and you can add audio clips and send your location. But while it's not big on special graphics, stickers or anything like those, it has something even better to offer: the ability to correct or delete a message you already sent. Everyone has been a victim of their smartphone's autocorrect at one time or another, but with ReTXT, you can just tap the sent message and edit whatever you want. It then corrects the message for both you and your recipient.

Another unique feature is the capability to ask for clarification. When someone sends you a message that doesn't make sense, you can tap a button that sends them a question mark that appears right next to their own message balloon. This indicates that they should clarify their meaning without you having to ask questions or engage in a lengthy back-and-forth conversation.

Finally, ReTXT has strong security features which ensure you and your recipient are the only people to view your message content. It doesn't store your conversations on any server, and it has end-to-end encryption. The other apps can't boast this level of security, so if security is your number one concern, this is the app for you.

It's important to note that -- like WhatsApp -- you'll need to pay a 99 cents a year subscription (about £0.65 or AU$1.25), but if these features are important to you it's easy to part with a dollar per year.

Where it excels

  • ReTXT lets you edit sent messages to fix any errors, whether it was an autocorrect mistake or maybe even something you shouldn't have said in the heat of the moment.
  • You can ask for clarification by touching a button so you can avoid the back and forth texts.
  • End-to-end encryption means you'll know only you and your recipient can see your messages.

Where it falls flat

  • It doesn't have any customization or special graphics and emoticons besides what comes with your default keyboard.
  • Almost nobody uses it because it's so new.

Best for: Those who find themselves making a lot of typos in their messages, or those who want an added level of security not found in other messaging apps.


CNET recommends...

All of these are great chat apps, and really it comes down to a matter of your messaging style for which one you pick. But I think for most people, the fact that Viber covers so many bases puts it on top.

Not only does it have more practical features, like sending your location and contacts, it also has fun features which let you add audio clips and stickers to your conversations. And the fact that you can make both audio and video calls pushes it over the top.

There's still the problem of getting your friends to download the app, but with all these features, it shouldn't be too hard to convince them.

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