Google Hangouts for Android just received SMS-integration, while Facebook Messenger for Android just received a completely new user interface. As two of the best messaging apps out there, this just makes them even harder to choose between.
On the surface, they’re quite similar, but dig a bit deeper and you begin to see the major differences. To decide on a winner, I’ll be examining every facet of both apps from their visual appearances to their differentiating features. Let’s get started.
First off, to message anyone on Messenger or Hangouts, they have to be using that service (unless you’re sending an SMS through Hangouts). That means that no matter how amazing an app is, it’s useless if none of your friends use it.
Since Facebook already has a massive user base, and Google+ (which is tightly integrated with Hangouts) still struggles to gain steam, Facebook has a clear advantage here.
Winner: Facebook Messenger
Hangouts has the typical modern card-styling given to all of Google’s apps. The first screen you arrive at is the slide-out menu from the left side which lists all of your messages. If you choose to use Hangouts as your SMS app, those conversations that are sent via SMS will be labeled as such.
Swiping away the slide-out menu will show you suggestions for who to Hangout with next. It’s an odd UI choice, since the main screen is really the slide-out menu, but it does mean that in any conversation you can just swipe back to the main screen from the left.
Normally, I love all the swiping, but it gets awkward here because to get back to your conversation, you have to swipe in the from the right, but if you don’t grab the edge just perfectly, you swipe one of your conversations away, accidentally archiving it. Whoops.
Messenger works a bit differently; there are three tabs along the top: recent messages, contacts, and settings. A “new message” button stretches across the bottom on all three tabs. Friends who just have a Facebook account have a grey “f” by their picture, but those who have downloaded Messenger have the new blue Messenger logo by their name.
From the list screen, you can see if someone has seen your message already. A check means that they’ve seen it, a turning arrow means that you sent it but they haven’t seen it yet, and no icon means that they were the last one to send you a message.
While I love Google’s modern UI and having a unified experience across Android apps, Facebook’s UI is far simpler, and the bright blue color is a refreshing new look.
Winner: Facebook Messenger
Below, you can see a group message for MakeUseOf as well as some of the new emoticons. The slightly greyed out faces at the bottom show how far everyone in the conversation has seen. Up top is the video chat button which we will discuss more later.
Facebook went for a very iOS7-like design, sending your messages in bright blue and receiving messages in grey, with a white background for the conversation. On the top of the screen, you can see if the person is using Messenger or is just on Facebook. If they’re not on messenger, an Invite button will be present.
On the left, you see an example of messaging using the Chat Heads feature (incidentally, overtop the Hangouts app), whereas the right is what it looks like if you’re in the app. We’ll touch on Chat Heads more in a moment.
I prefer the look of Facebook’s messaging, and it’s useful to know whether or not someone is on Messenger or just Facebook. And having a “Seen at this time” in text feature on Messenger trumps Google’s way of displaying the person’s greyed out picture below the message, in my opinion. Additionally, Messenger looks cleaner without all the time stamps, but you can still long-press on any message to view its details, including time stamp and whether it was sent from the Web or an app.
Winner: Facebook Messenger
Here’s where things are a bit odd. Hangouts support video calling, but not regular audio calls, and Messenger supports audio calls over Wi-Fi but not video calls. Of course, with Hangouts, you could simply call someone and turn off your video.
Below, you can see the Messenger audio call screen on the left, prominently displaying my friend’s profile picture, and on the right, you can see Hangouts beginning a video call.
Google definitely takes the cake here by having video chat, although we’re still waiting around for the free calling via Google Voice that was given to iOS users. Free Facebook to Facebook Wi-Fi calling is cool, but why no video calling? It’s already supported through the Web interface and has been for a while.
Winner: Google Hangouts
Hangout’s biggest advantage is currently SMS integration, which the old Facebook Messenger had, but the new Messenger does not. That decision baffles me, but Android Beat reports that Facebook is testing new SMS-integration with a limited number of users, so if you’re one of the lucky ones to be running that version of Messenger, let us know.
But Hangout’s SMS integration is far from perfect. Even if you have one contact with a phone number and Google+ account, your SMS and Google+ conversations are split into two different threads, essentially defeating the purpose.
There is also the option to send your location via the pin button at the bottom, and animated GIFs are now supported as well.
Facebook’s Chat Heads are their stand out feature, shown above floating over the Google Maps application. This little bubble can stay on your screen, overlapping your home screen or any app. It’s small enough to stay out of the way and can be relocated or deleted with the flick of your finger.
Facebook’s differentiation between Messenger users and typical Facebook users makes it easy to tell who is able to respond quickly and who probably won’t see it for a while. Plus, the contacts tab shows you everyone who is online and whether they’re on mobile devices or the Web. You can even turn off your online status if you aren’t feeling particularly talkative.
Messenger also has a plethora of free stickers, which are much better than Hangout’s emoticons in my opinion, but whether you prefer stickers or emoticons is very subjective.
For being able to have more features while keeping it simple, this round goes to Messenger, despite Hangout’s SMS integration.
Winner: Facebook Messenger.
Conclusion And The Future
Facebook wins 4:1.
If Google could sort out their SMS-integration, revamp the UI to make it a bit simpler, and integrate Google Voice, it would take the cake. But if Facebook could add video-messaging and SMS-integration, it would be far and away the best choice for a messaging app.
In both cases, I think that Hangouts and Messenger need to take advantage of Android’s ability to handle actionable notifications for 4.1 and up. Imagine receiving a text message and being able to mark it as read, call the person, or reply by opening up a floating window, all from the notification panel; you wouldn’t have to leave your current app. This is possible right now, but has yet to be implemented by either party.
What do you think of Hangouts and Messenger? Do you have a different messaging app that trounces both of these? Let us know in the comments.