Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tech Column: Free International and Domestic Texting

by Bill Adler

If there's one thing that's overpriced, one thing that's more of a rip-off --a term I don't use often, but which I use with gusto here-- it's text messaging. The actual data cost of text messages is marked up by cell phone companies a tad more than 7,000 percent. That's great for cell phone companies, not great for the rest of humanity.

Sure, there are multi-text packages you can buy so that you're not surprised by a bill that resembles the sticker on a new car. But if you text internationally, you're out of luck: You're going to pay per text.

There are numerous apps that you can install on your smartphone to text for free. Most of these apps work on the panoply of phone platforms, including iPhones and Androids. They are, as the jargon goes, cross-platform. Which to choose? Before I declare a winner, or winners, I want to mention one limitation that most of these apps suffer from: Your texting companion must have the same app installed. Fortunately, you can have multiple texting apps installed on your phone.

All of these texting apps have push notification, so you'll know when you've received a message, just as you do with regular text messaging.

The top three texting apps are Whatsapp, Viber and Google Talk. Whatsapp, www.whatsapp.com, is a straightforward messaging app that uses your data plan to send and receive messages. Whatsapp does eat into your cellular data plan allotment, but data fees are significantly smaller than text messaging costs, and texts use very little data. With Whatsapp you can send not just text, but photos, audio and video messages, too (though multimedia eats more data). If you want to use Whatsapp without using any of your data plan, turn off cellular and just use wifi. Whatsapp has a group messaging feature, too.

Viber, www.viber.com, is one of the newest of the free text messaging apps, and works similarly to Whatsapp: You can send and receive text, audio and video files. Viber will notify you when you receive a message from another Viber user. Viber-to-Viber messages always go through wifi --not the cellular network-- so they are always free. Viber is your better bet when you're roaming overseas or have a limited data plan. But what if you aren't connected via wifi and want to send a text? If you or the person you're talking with aren't on wifi at the moment, the message will be sent or delivered when you are. You can also use Viber to place voice calls for free to other Viber users.

I use Google Voice for free texting. (Not to be confused with Google Talk, which is an instant messaging service.) Google Voice, www.google.com/voice, offers some terrific features, not available on any other text messaging apps or services. But before I get to the great things about Google Voice, I want to mention its main downsides: It's only available to people in the United States. You can use it while traveling outside of the US, but you must already have a US phone number to get Google Voice. Another limitation is that Google Voice is text only: You can't send images or audio.

Google Voice is the only free texting service that lets you receive and send your texts from your PC -- Windows or Mac. It can be convenient to text from your computer at times. You can also forward your text messages to an email address, as well as check for texts on any computer (and reply, too!) Like Viper and Whatsapp, Google Voice notifies you on your phone when you have a text. Google Voice works through wifi, so texts are free.

But why not use an instant messaging app instead of texting? Good question, and an excellent alternative to texting. Instant messaging services like eBuddy and IMO do as much as free texting apps and may be a better option. Next week's tech column will be about free instant messaging alternatives to texting.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," http://amzn.to/rspOft . He tweets at @billadler.

Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents. Wow, what a spectacularly fascinating book! http://amzn.to/ylpeUJ (Adv)

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    This is a member of the Viber Development Team! :)

    Thanks for putting Viber on your list.
    We are very happy to see that so many people are interested in our application!

    If you have any question about Viber - please feel free to ask.

    Thank you,
    Viber Team