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Facebook Messenger for Android review: No more SMS, but tons of chat features

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Editor's Note, March 25, 2015: This review has been updated to include features added in the newest version of the app.

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8.5

Facebook Messenger for Android

The Good

With a slick new design and Chat Heads, <b>Facebook Messenger</b> makes it even easier to chat with Facebook friends, even outside of the app.

The Bad

Annoying pop-ups prompt you to invite your friends to install the app, and there's no video calling. Facebook also removed the SMS messaging features the app used to have.

The Bottom Line

Facebook Messenger is still the best way to chat with Facebook friends from your Android device.

Facebook Messenger (Android | iOS | Windows Phone) is a standalone app that lets you chat with your Facebook friends, send them photos and stickers, and even make free VoIP calls to your friends and family who are already on Facebook. It takes the best parts of chatting over Facebook on the Web and puts them on your Android device.

In a recent update, Facebook removed the ability to send and receive SMS messages in the app. However, the social network makes up for that subtraction with a major makeover that gives the app a much more modern look and adds extra features, which make it better than ever.

Streamlined chat with Facebook Messenger for Android (pictures)

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Design
The latest update to Facebook Messenger gave the app a completely new look, with bright, colorful conversation pages, and streamlined friends lists.

The main screen, called Recent, shows a list of your recent active conversations, which is every message thread that you have not deleted or archived. You'll see your friends' photos, names, and the last message sent in the conversation.

There's a small icon next to each of your friend's photo that tells you their chat status. The blue messenger icon (which looks like a tiny lightning strike) means they're using any of the Facebook Messenger apps and are currently signed in. The gray Facebook logo means they are only signed into Facebook's Web site, though it doesn't tell if they are currently online.

Facebook Messenger has a new colorful and sleek design. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Next to that main screen, there's a page with two lists of friends. The first shows all of your friends who use one of the Facebook Messenger apps, whether on Android, Windows Phone, or iOS. Your favorite contacts are at the top of that page, followed by an alphabetical list of the rest of your friends who have Messenger installed on one of their devices. The other list is called Active, and displays your Facebook friends who are online right now, whether on mobile or the Web.

Chatting with friends
For anyone who's chatted using Facebook in a desktop browser, the Facebook Messenger mobile app should also feel completely familiar. It lets you send messages to one or more recipients, as well as reply with text, photo attachments (from the Web or from your mobile device), stickers (small still or animated images) or voice recordings.

From the Recent screen, you can tap the plus sign at the bottom to start a new chat, where you can send messages, photos, and stickers. Just start typing a friend's name and the app will search ahead to find people who match. If your Recent page already has conversations that you started in another app or on the Web site, you can tap on anyone's name to continue chatting.

Each conversation has a clean, simple design, similar to what you'll see on Messenger for Windows Phone and iOS. In the text field, where you type your message, there are options to send a photo, or add a sticker (more about those below). When you send a photo, you can either snap a new picture, choose an existing on from your phone, or search the Web for an image.

Stickers are free images of smiley faces, cats, and even branded characters from Disney and more, which you can add to your conversations. As silly as they are, we really like the stickers, especially the animated Pusheen the Cat choices. One tip we picked up while playing around with the app is once an animated sticker stops playing, just tap it to start it again. You can download more free sticker packs (themed collections) without leaving the app, which is nice.

You can choose to share your location with your friends in a chat by tapping the small dot next to the text field. If it's blue, that means your friend can see the city and neighborhood where you are. If the dot is gray, that means location sharing is turned off. When you or your friend has location sharing on, you can tap and hold any message, sticker, or photo and select "View details" to see, on a map, from where the message was sent.

Facebook recently added a feature that lets you share content, like GIFs and videos, from other apps into chats in Messenger. Next to the options to share stickers and photos in the app, there are three dots that open a "more" menu that shows a list of the apps that can share to Messenger, which include ESPN, Imgur, Giphy and The Weather Channel. If you have any of the eligible apps installed, you can tap it to open it and create something to share. When you're done, you'll see a dedicated button that lets you share your creation back to Messenger.

Another handy feature of Messenger is group chatting. From the Recent conversations screen, you can tap the blue bar at the bottom to start a new group chat. That will send one message two or more people at once, just like on Facebook's Web site. You can add more people at any time, give the conversation a name, or set a group photo from the menu on the conversation page.

Though we really like the design and features of the app, it's not perfect. If you chat with someone who does not also use the Messenger app, you'll get these annoying pop up messages that tell you to invite your to install the app. We are not fans of spamming our friends into installing apps, so we really don't like this feature.

Chat Heads
A big part of Messenger is Chat Heads, which was first introduced with Facebook Home. The feature lets you quickly access your conversations no matter where you happen to be in the Android OS. So, whether you're looking through an Instagram feed or reading a Web site in Chrome, the small, circular Chat Heads will pop up as messages come in. When you tap a Chat Head, it opens up a slick little chat interface that lays right on top of the currently active window. From this overlay, you can perform all of your typical chat functions, then simply close it and return to what you were previously doing. It's a convenience that Facebook junkies will, no doubt, appreciate.

And if you're not into those little Chat Heads looming as you use your device, you can easily swipe them to the bottom of the screen to get rid of them. Otherwise, from the Notifications menu, you can opt out of the Chat Heads feature altogether, and keep your conversations contained only within the Facebook Messenger app.

Chat Heads move your conversations out Messenger, so you can chat while you do other things on your phone. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Free voice calls
Another star feature of Messenger is the free VoIP calls available for users in select countries, including the US and Canada. To make a call, just tap your phone's menu button in any chat and choose Free Call. It's really simple, and the feature works like a charm. And of course, your carrier minutes will not be used, but normal data charges will apply. If you want to make a normal voice call using carrier minutes, you can select your friend's phone number in the menu instead. However, that feature only works if your friend has entered their phone number on the Facebook account.

Though the free voice calling is great, one feature we'd like added to the app is free video calling, especially considering it's already available through your desktop browser.

Conclusion
Facebook Messenger has undergone a lot of changes since its inception. A slick new design, stickers, and free voice calling are all welcome additions, but we're still bummed that Facebook got rid of the ability to send SMS messages in the app.

For those who only check their Facebook inbox occasionally and are more interested in their news feed, the original Facebook app will suffice. But if you're really into chatting with your friends anywhere and everywhere, Messenger is still certainly the best way to quickly and easily access your conversations.

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8.5

Facebook Messenger for Android

Score Breakdown

Setup 10Features 8Interface 8Performance 9