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iMessage envy? Psh. Google's fancy Chat feature will soon be the default messaging platform on Android phones

If you're not using Google Chat's enhanced messaging features, it's time to start.

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If you haven't started using Google's Messages app, you will soon. Trust us, it's worth it. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Google is fighting back against Apple rival iMessage envy by making its own Messages app a lot more fun. Starting this week, all three major US wireless carriers have committed to making Google Messages the default messaging app for Android phones. Verizon is the latest carrier to make the announcement, following T-Mobile and AT&T, both of which made the same announcement earlier this year. 

Eliminating iMessage envy is order to fill. Apple's iMessage really does put regular text messaging to shame thanks to enhanced features like Wi-Fi messaging, full-resolution photos and videos, typing indicators so you can see when someone is responding, and read receipts. And I can't fail to mention the weird social (and sometimes romantic?) divide Apple encourages by giving other iMessage users their own colorful conversation bubble.

To tackle this, Google's Messages app includes Google Chat -- also known technically as RCS Messaging -- which has a lot of the same perks that iMessage has, including end-to-end encrypted messaging, improved group chats, read receipts, typing indicators and full-resolution photos and videos. It also mashes together emojis in novel ways and puts them front and center to liven up conversations.

You don't have to wait for the carriers to finish their rollouts, some of which won't even begin until 2022. You can start using Android Messages and Chat right now. To be clear, if you're not using Chat, you're missing out. Let's take a closer look at what you'll need to do to turn on the new feature, as well as some of the more nuanced aspects of Chat.

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How to get started with Google's Chat feature

First, you'll need an Android phone with Google's Messages app installed and set as the default text-messaging app. The first time you launch Messages, it will ask if you want to set it as your default app. Just follow the prompts and don't worry, you won't lose your conversation history by switching. 

After setting Messages as your default messaging app, take a couple of minutes and set up Messages for Web, which allows you to send and receive text messages from your computer

The service is globally available, so it shouldn't matter which carrier you use or what country you live in, as long as you have the Messages app installed and are using it, you'll have access to Chat. 

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Turning on Chat takes just a few taps and you're all set. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Turn Google's Chat features on

After installing Google's Messages app and setting it as your default texting app, there are two different ways to enable Chat. You can either wait for a prompt in the Messages app asking if you want to see when your friends are typing -- a prompt that has shown up almost instantly for me on the last few Android phones I have set up, or you can go into the Settings section of Messages select Chat features and slide the switch next to Enable chat features to the On position.

This same settings page is also where you can go to turn your read receipts on or off, as well as disable the typing indicator whenever you're typing and control what happens if Chat fails to send a message. 

If you run into issues with sending messages, you can also view the current status of your phone's connection to the Chat service in the settings section of the app. As long as it says Connected, your phone number is registered with Chat and should use the service whenever you're talking to a contact who also has Chat enabled.

That's an important aspect of Chat. Whoever you're talking to will also need to have the feature enabled on their device to use the new chat features, though of course all usual texting features still apply. 

You'll be able to take advantage sooner by getting your friends to use Google Messages. You can guide them through the setup process (or send them a link to this post). 

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See that dark blue bubble? That tells you you're using Chat. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Use the new Chat features in a conversation

After you turn on chat features, the Messages app will continue to work and look the same, and you should keep using it the same way you always have. The app knows when you're talking to someone through text or another contact with chat turned on. 

The easiest way to tell if a conversation is using old-fashioned text messaging or the new chat features is to look at the text box before you start typing. If the box says "Chat message" then the conversation will have typing indicators, read receipts, and the rest of the features that RCS Messaging offers. Another way to quickly identify the type of messages you're sending is by the color of the text bubble. A regular text conversation will have a light blue bubble, while a chat message will be a darker shade of blue. 

A fun feature available in chat is adding reactions to messages. Just long-press on a message until a bubble shows up, presenting you with a few different options, including like, love, laughter or anger. 

When chat features are in use, you'll see delivered and read receipts underneath each message you've sent, and you can send full-resolution photos and share files with fellow chat users. You don't have to do anything special to send a high-resolution image, just tap on the photo icon in the app and pick a photo or video. You'll see a loading circle on the image as it's uploaded and sent, but otherwise the process looks and works the same as sending a text message. 

Because Chat works over mobile data or Wi-Fi, you can put your phone in airplane mode and you'll still be able to send and receive messages with other Chat users using only a Wi-Fi connection. 

How to use Google Messages chat features

One-on-one conversation are encrypted, but group messages aren't. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Switching phones? Make sure you turn Chat off

Just like Apple's iMessage tries holding onto your phone number if you forget to disable it, so does Chat. Before you remove the SIM card from your phone, make sure to turn off Chat. If you forget to turn it off before moving your SIM card to a new phone, chat features could continue to work for up to eight days. Meaning, you may not get messages sent to your number by someone else who is using chat. 

Disable Chat by opening Settings > Chat features in the Messages app and slide the switch next to Enable chat features to the Off position. I suggest waiting a few minutes after turning it off to let Google's servers process the request, and ensure your number doesn't get stuck in limbo. 

How to tell if a chat is encrypted

Right now, only conversations between you and another person using chat are encrypted. There isn't anything special you need to do to start using the one-to-one encryption feature, but I will shed some light on how you can tell if it's working properly. 

When starting a conversation with another Chat user, you'll see a banner on your screen that has a lock icon and states you're "Chatting with [name/number]." Furthermore, the send icon that looks like a paper airplane will have a small lock icon on it, and the timestamps included in your conversation will also include a lock icon. That lock is a quick and easy way to see that a particular message or conversation is encrypted.

If Google's Chat service still isn't enough to keep you on Android, switching to iPhone is easier than you might think. However, if you're completely happy with Android, we have a roundup of the best features coming to Android 12. Not to be outdone, we also have a handful of our favorite features in Android 11.