iPhone Gems: “Free” SMS and MMS Alternatives for iPhone and iPod touch
While some might question whether it’s truly revolutionary, Apple’s iChat software has continued to do an exemplary job of unifying several different forms of communication—text, voice, and video—into a single program that “just works,” at least, most of the time. Thus, when the iPhone launched, users were surprised to see Apple take a less aggressive stance towards phone-based messaging: it left out support for iChat-style instant messaging, pushed users to use needlessly more expensive and limited SMS text messages, and featured no option for sending or receiving MMS messages containing photos, audio, or video.
To be very clear up front, iLounge feels strongly that the gold standard for instant messaging is a program such as iChat, and our roundup of iPhone instant messaging alternatives found the free program Palringo to be the best substitute: it lets users send instant messages using multiple services, and also can send photos and audio clips at no charge. By comparison, SMS and MMS services are overpriced, limited, and in some cases unreliable; Apple should certainly be offering its own integrated version of iChat, instead. The power and simplicity would be as big a reason for new users to buy iPhones as iChat has been in convincing people to buy Macs.
But some users continue to use SMS and MMS anyway, in large part to keep in touch with friends who aren’t using iPhones. Apple hasn’t added MMS support to the iPhone, but has modestly expanded the SMS application to let users send messages to multiple recipients at once, as shown in the screenshot above. Today, we look at seven different apps that are touted as offering “free” or lower-priced alternatives to paying for SMS and MMS messages, four handling SMS and three for MMS. While none of these apps is a truly complete substitute for the paid services, which work domestically and internationally—the latter generally at added expense—they come close enough under certain circumstances that many users, particularly ones in the U.S., may find them useful, anyway. Our top SMS pick is a $1 app called Infinite SMS from Inner Fence, with a highly qualified, merely limited recommendation going to the best of the MMS apps, Fetch My MMS. (MMS reviews for this roundup were written by Charles Starrett.)
Free Texting (SMS) ($5) from BoCoSoft is the most expensive and arguably most ambitious title in this collection: it is the only app that promises to let you send and receive free SMS messages both domestically and internationally. After downloading Free Texting, BoCoSoft claims, “ALL text messages are free,” supporting “more than 50 countries” and “300+ international carriers.” You enter a telephone number or choose a contact from your iPhone/iPod touch contacts list, manually select their cellular provider—yes, you have to know this, and go through a list sorted by country and carrier—then type a message and send it. Like two of the other programs here, what Free Texting actually does is simple: it takes the phone number, appends what is supposed to be the correct e-mail address for sending text messages to that number via a web site, and then uses your iPod’s or iPhone’s Mail application to send out the message. When someone receives the message and replies, the message goes to your e-mail box, requiring you to switch apps to read the response, then either use Free Texting or the Mail app to carry on a conversation—inconvenient and not worth $5.
In our testing with US-based AT&T recipients, Free Texting worked as well as the other three SMS apps we tried, albeit with a more complex and less attractive interface—notably lacking a widescreen keyboard option. More importantly, we had poor results with its international functionality: first, it repeatedly failed to get messages out to our U.K.-based editor on the O2 network, either with the mysterious “O2 (1)” or “O2 (2)” options offered by the software. In both cases, Free Texting claimed to send the messages; they just never arrived. It also failed to send to our Canadian editor using the Rogers service, but here, we received an instant bounceback of the message saying that it was “undeliverable;” Free Texting appeared to be incorrectly parsing the Canadian phone number with periods. Based on the failures we experienced with messaging to two well-known iPhone international carrier partners, who knows how many of the other international messaging protocols it implements incorrectly, as well?
Another issue with Free Texting was that it had serious issues running from our iPhone 3G: unlike the iPod touch, which lacks for a phone dialing mechanism, trying to click on a contact’s phone number with Free Texting for some reason activated the iPhone’s dialer, initiating calls to both our U.S. and U.K. editors. The developer claims to be fixing that bug, but from what we’ve seen, Free Texting has a long way to go before it offers better value than the truly free or less expensive SMS apps we’ve tested, and shouldn’t be touting advanced features if they don’t work reliably. iLounge Rating: D.
From aesthetic and pricing standpoints, Freedom SMS ($2) from TwinPekes Software represents a major improvement upon Free Texting: it’s less expensive and uses a familiar, iPhone-like interface that attempts to really simplify the process of selecting people to message. You tap on the “To:” line and pick a contact. Freedom SMS automatically selects their “Mobile” number and leaves you to pick their carrier from a list of 10 different U.S.-based options. Then you type a message with a keyboard, either in vertical or landscape mode.
A “find” button is included to make an educated automatic guess at their network, based on which carrier the number originally came from, but it fails if the number has been ported to another network. At least the option’s there. Unfortunately, there’s a big omission: if you don’t have a contact, or your contact doesn’t have something listed in their Mobile field, you can’t send a message to them. There’s no pop-up number pad, nor a way to select a number other than the one labelled “Mobile,” as in the other applications. If your contact has two phones, or not enough information in your contacts list, you’re out of luck.
Like Free Texting, once you’ve picked a contact and carrier, you can type and send a message: once again, it goes through e-mail and is as reliable as the delivery services of the carriers your contacts are using. We were able to send messages easily to U.S.-based users, but not internationally, as the program doesn’t support that, and as with most of the other apps here, messages sent back required us to use the iPhone’s e-mail app rather than an integrated receiver in Freedom SMS. While this works quickly to send messages out, it defeats the purpose of SMS by forcing you to check your e-mail for a response, then flip back to the app to send an outgoing message. It’s fine for sending the occasional message, but not for having a real conversation. iLounge Rating: B-.
Of all of the SMS apps we tested, Infinite SMS: Send/Receive Free Texts ($1) by Inner Fence was unquestionably the best for one major reason: it addresses the issue of SMS messaging from a holistic, big picture perspective rather than just letting you send outgoing messages. Infinite SMS duplicates Apple’s SMS application interface, letting you both send and automatically receive SMS messages without leaving this application—a huge difference between this and the other three SMS apps here. Thus, iPod touch owners and iPhone users alike have the ability to send and receive free SMS messages, limited only in two ways relative to the standard iPhone SMS app: you can’t send messages to multiple users, or to any individual user outside of the US. It works for US numbers only.
The way Inner Fence accomplishes this is by providing an iPhone-formatted interface for Google Talk, and requiring you to use a Gmail account as the basis for your communications. Rather than automatically exiting the app to send your messages or requiring you to manually do so to check your messages, Infinite SMS does everything internally: it sends the messages using a Google 406-prefix number, which may initially be unfamiliar to your recipient—so ID yourself—and monitors your specified Gmail box for whatever comes in to that number. It even places a notification marker on your home screen as to how many unread messages there are, though unlike Apple’s SMS application, it can’t run in the background and update that number unless you run the app.
Running Infinite SMS has the advantage of costing the user nothing for either sending or receiving messages—a reason to keep using the app to reduce your SMSing costs—but if your recipient gets charged for sending or receiving messages, he or she will still be on the hook for those charges. Ultimately, this is a major reason to shift your messaging over to an instant messenger app such as Palringo or AOL’s AIM, but if you need to send and receive multiple SMS messages with U.S.-based callers, this would be our top pick overall. Note that the $1 price is presently listed as promotional; should it go up, our rating may well go down commensurately. iLounge Rating: B+.
SMS Touch ($3) from Michael Schneider is the last of the SMS apps we review today, and from a functionality standpoint, it doesn’t offer anything hugely new: its biggest selling points are its ability to display a landscape-format keyboard in addition to the standard vertical keyboard, and an option that lets you spellcheck the message after you’re done. Freedom SMS offers the same type of wide keyboard as an alternative, realtime spellchecking functionality, and a lower price; SMS Touch only improves upon the contacts interface.
What SMS Touch does is to give you three choices for sending messages: enter a U.S.-only telephone number directly, pick from recent recipients you’ve already sent SMS Touch messages to, or select a contact and specific number from your full contacts list. It doesn’t ask for carrier information, and in our tests, did a good job of figuring out automatically whether someone was on AT&T or T-Mobile, regardless of whether the number originated with one service and switched to the other. Unfortunately, it doesn’t support all of even the U.S. networks, and like two of the other apps we tested, it doesn’t pretend to offer international support, either. Receiving messages takes place through e-mail, as with all apps save Infinite SMS, so you’ll have to switch back and forth between iPhone apps to use this.
Overall, it’s hard to get really excited about SMS Touch based on its simple functionality and the $3 asking price; although it works a bit better than Freedom SMS, it costs more and doesn’t offer complete U.S. network support. In our view, Infinite SMS provides a better overall solution at a lower price, but SMS Touch is again fine for sending the occasional message without an additional charge. iLounge Rating: B-.
To make a long story short, MMS functionality is a mess right now on the iPhone, and if you’re looking for an application that’s guaranteed to work as well as the built-in MMS features of phones released a couple of years ago, prepare to be disappointed. Of the MMS programs we’ve tested, nothing can both send and receive MMS messages—the apps only handle one or the other—and we found them to be extremely unreliable. The developers alternate between blaming the carriers and admitting that their own software isn’t completely perfect yet, but in any case, we are not willing to provide our full general recommendation to any of the MMS programs. They’re strictly “at your own risk” options right now, and may or may not work depending on your needs.
Unlike the other MMS apps reviewed here today, Fetch My MMS ($5) from Phase2 Media is designed to do one thing: let iPhone users view photographs from incoming MMS messages without having to access AT&T’s waypoint site ViewMyMessage.com directly. It does not fetch audio or video files, and may or may not work for non-AT&T carriers: the software has a “manual” mode so that non-AT&T users can try it.
Fetch My MMS accomplishes its goal by using OCR technology to extract MSG IDs and Passwords from the SMS notification—a useful, smart idea given that the alternative is to write down these things on a piece of paper, then enter them into a link loaded in Safari. Instead, the user simply takes a screenshot of the message in the SMS app, selects it with the Fetch My MMS application, and clicks a “go” button once he/she has verified that the MSG ID and password are correct. Once received, the app lets users see message details of any photo, and automatically stores it in an in-app MMS library—users may also save any image to their iPhone’s separate Photo Library. Images received by MMS tend to be low in quality, with our samples coming in at 320x240 or lower resolutions, which makes MMS unattractive by comparison with e-mail for most iPhone users.
Unfortunately, whether due to an AT&T problem or something else, we had trouble initially testing Fetch My MMS because we were unable to receive any MMS message notifications on all but one of our three test iPhones. No matter what the source of the problem is, users considering Fetch My MMS should absolutely make sure that they can receive AT&T’s MMS notifications, otherwise, the app is basically useless. Fortunately, when it does work, the OCR functions reliably, and with an attractive interface that is certainly easier to use than the web-based alternative. Received photos are grouped by sender by default—date sorting is also an option—and appear on the main interface as small, date-stamped thumbnails. When viewing an individual picture, the image is presented on a black background, with buttons to go back, save the image to the library, move between images, and delete the image.
Overall, when Fetch My MMS is installed on an iPhone that is receiving MMS notifications, it does its job well, eliminating the hassle of writing down or otherwise memorizing the MSG ID and password just to view incoming photos. As we noted above, however, it is unclear from our testing whether users will reliably receive notifications, leading us to recommend Fetch My MMS only if you can verify that you’re getting the notifications successfully, and are willing to drop $5 for an app like this. For everyone else, there’s no reason to bother. iLounge Rating: B-.
Despite the similarity of its name to the MMS-reading Fetch My MMS, Fetch MMS ($5) from Inside Root Media is actually a MMS-sending application. The app, which runs on iPhones or second-generation iPod touch units, lets users send any picture from the photo library, or the camera if running on an iPhone. Users are asked to enter their first name, phone number, and email address in the settings area to set up the program, which must be quit and relaunched in order for the changes to take affect. The whole interface for doing this is amateurish—nowhere near as streamlined as it should be on a $5 iPhone app—but it does work.
Once a picture is selected, the app asks the user to manually input the receiving number and hit the “done” button; no Contacts support is offered, which is inconvenient and highly disappointing. In testing, we were able to successfully send MMS messages to a couple of T-Mobile and AT&T users, from both an iPhone and second-generation iPod touch, although this makes the results sound better than they were: for whatever reason, most of our own test iPhones never received a message saying an MMS was available. This makes Fetch MMS a risky proposition for iPhone-to-iPhone use, but again, e-mail is a much better way to send images, anyway.
MMS messages received on the T-Mobile device were oddly formatted as a movie, with the picture being shown during the 10-second clip; messages were normally received within a minute of sending them. Pictures were also drastically reduced in size when sent through Fetch MMS; a 1600x1200 picture came through at 320x240 resolution, while a normal iPhone screenshot—480x320—came through as a 240x160, thumbnail-quality image. It is unclear whether AT&T or the app itself is responsible for the downscaling, but it suffices to say that pictures sent through Fetch MMS will look nowhere near as good on the other side as they do on yours.
Apart from the notification issues, which could be an AT&T problem, a problem with Fetch MMS’ servers—which route the message to the correct carrier—or something else, the app otherwise sports only a passable interface, with a black-and-blue color scheme, smallish boxes for information entry, and buttons and text that were not properly aligned. In a bizarre touch, the app offers flashlight, strobe, and “cop strobe” screen effects in its Extras area, the sort of random toss-ins that no one is looking for; the developer would have been better off spending time improving the app’s interface and feature set. For users looking to send MMS-formatted images from the iPod touch or iPhone to non-iPhone users, Fetch MMS is a viable but not attractive as completely convenient option; its interface issues are partially responsible for dragging down its rating from a B-. Until and unless the technical problems are worked out, however, it probably won’t rate higher than that: buyers may well find that they’re spending $5 on a program that never delivers upon its promise. iLounge Rating: C.
Unlike Fetch MMS, which re-routes messages back through the carrier’s respective MMS servers, Multimedia Messages (Free; listed as “MMS” on the Home Screen) from Hook Mobile serves as an MMS alternative, a conduit for the company’s proprietary messaging service. Before using MMS, users must activate their phone with Hook’s service by clicking on a link sent via SMS to the phone being used. Like Fetch MMS, Multimedia Messages lets users send picture messages, and can utilize the iPhone’s built-in camera to take shots from within the application, or access the Photo Library. Users may also add text to the outgoing message, and the app offers full Contacts support.
Unfortunately, we had a number of problems with Multimedia Messages, mostly on the receiving end. Only once were we successfully able to view a message sent via the app, and that was on the originating device. It’s worth noting that the message was displayed in the Safari browser, on an iPhone-formatted page. Whether due to registration demands or some other problem, other phones we sent messages to were either not able to view the picture following notification, or were not notified at all of an incoming message—a fatal flaw, in our opinion, considering that Multimedia Messages works outside the realm of the carriers’ own MMS systems, sending SMS links instead.
Overall, Multimedia Messages falls well short of being an even acceptable MMS solution. It uses a proprietary system, which, while offering the benefit of bypassing possible notification problems on AT&T’s end, never seemed to work right on its own. If the app were able to successfully send and deliver messages without mishaps or hassles for the receiver, we could see it as a useful alternative to other MMS messaging options, but for now, it’s not worth the time or frustration. iLounge Rating: D.
Finally, we note but do not review a fourth MMS application called MMS Meister ($1) from Frank Vercruesse, which was designed solely for users of T-Mobile Germany, with no support for other carriers. MMS Meister promises to receive and send text and pictures, without support for audio or video.
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