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

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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.

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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.

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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