Mobile Apps

Upgrade Your iOS Home Screen: Messages

One of the great things about the various iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) is that, out of the box, there is a ton of functionality built in, allowing you to utilize the many functions of a cell phone, personal information manager, camera, and multimedia player in just one screen. While this is a lot of power in a user’s hand, there is room for improvement. To that end, I am going to take a look at each of the apps on the iOS home screen and offer alternatives which can either replace or augment what Apple offers.

First, let’s take a look at the stock iOS home screen on my iPhone. Those of you using iPod Touches or iPads will have variations of this screen, but most of the apps should be the same.

I am going to start with the upper left hand corner and take a look at alternative apps for Messages. Currently, Messages handles both SMS and MMS text messages. When iOS 5 comes out in the fall, Apple will add the ability to communicate directly with other iOS users, similar to Blackberry Messenger on Blackberry devices.  Until then, however, only iPhone users have this app as iPod Touches and iPads don’t have phone numbers associated with them. Even after iOS 5 arrives, those devices will only be able to use iMessages to communicate with other iOS devices and will lack the ability to send text messages. The three apps listed below will be able to fill that gap and are also viable alternatives for text messaging on the iPhone.

1. TextNow
TextNow from Enflick is my personal choice for a texting app on iOS. The app offers free texting for any user, which is especially handy for those who cannot afford an unlimited texting plan or are not on an iPhone. When you create a TextNow account, you are assigned a free phone number, although you are not guaranteed a number in the same area code where you are located. This isn’t a big issue as the number is for texting, not talking, and the idea of area codes are becoming more and more archaic as cell phones replace land lines as the primary phone number.

What’s especially nice about a TextNow account is that you can sign into the account on multiple iOS devices and receive texts to the same number. This can be useful for a family with multiple iOS devices as the same account can be set up on each device, giving the family a way to deliver a message to all members in one shot. TextNow handles both SMS and MMS messages and can be used in either portrait or landscape mode. You can even enable your TextNow number as a voice number for an additional fee of $2.99/month or $29.99/year, giving an iPod Touch or iPad phone capabilities, although you will need connection to wifi or mobile broadband to make or receive calls.

In testing the app, I found it to be very responsive. There were no delays in typing, sending or receiving texts. I also was able to send an MMS without issue, choosing a picture from my phone’s camera roll. Note, however, that, instead of using your assigned phone number to send MMS texts, TextNow uses an email address created with your account ( Anybody who wants to send you an MMS message will need to send to that email address for you to receive it. Despite that one caveat, this app does everything the built in Messages app does while offering much more. You can’t beat that for the cost (free).

2. Textfree

Textfree, by Pinger, is a similar app to TextNow. Like TextNow, Textfree has you create an account and associates a phone number and email address with that account for people to send text messages to. I was able to get a phone number in my own area code with Textfree, which is the only service of the three I reviewed to do so. Unlike TextNow, Textfree also has a web interface, which means you can also send and receive texts from your computer under the same account.

Textfree also offers voice services and gives you 10 minutes of talk time at the creation of your account. Unlike TextNow, which gives you the ability to purchase their voice service by the month or year, Textfree has you complete various tasks or offers to earn different amounts of talk time. There is no option to purchase talk time, so be prepared to fill out a lot of surveys and take part in a lot of deals to get more minutes. You can also get email notifications when new messages arrive in your account’s inbox.

Unfortunately, I could not give this app the number one spot in my review. Despite having similar functionality to TextNow, plus a few unique features, I found the app to be sluggish when I tested it out. I was able to send and receive texts, but I would have to wait for each step to complete in the text composing process. Also, while I don’t plan on using any of these apps for voice service, I am not a fan of Textfree’s method of offering talk time. I’d rather pay for the ability to use this app to make and receive calls than spend my time filling out surveys and signing up for services that I would then need to cancel, a process which usually involves jumping through a lot of hoops to accomplish.

3. TextPlus
My final recommendation for an iOS text messaging is TextPlus. Like the other two apps, you sign up for an account with TextPlus and are granted a phone number for sending and receiving texts. Unlike the other two apps, you don’t have an opportunity to get a local number if you use the free version of this service. Only TextPlus Gold, which costs $4.99, gives you a local phone number as well as getting rid of any ads which you would see in the free version. Personally, ads don’t bother me, so we’ll stick with the free option in this case. TextPlus also makes it easier to text multiple people simultaneously, using what TextPlus calls Communities. You also have the option to create a TextPlus profile and use the service as an instant messaging app on top of texting, something unique to TextPlus.

Another difference between TextPlus and the other two texting apps is that, instead of sending an MMS message, TextPlus will send a regular text with a link to the photo you are sending. There are pros and cons to this method adn, to be honest, this was the feature which kept me from recommending TextPlus as the top choice for texting apps. Personally, I prefer to get the picture when the message arrives and don’t want to make people I’m sending texts to an extra step to see the picture I’m sending.

As you can see, I’ve now moved TextNow into the spot where Messages used to be. We’ll continue to replace or, if we need the original app in combination with the better app we’ve found, build app folders for each of the spots you see on the home screen. Soon, our Home screen will look nothing like the original, but will offer us so much more than what Apple gave us to begin with.

If you have used any of the texting apps I’ve recommended, let me know what you think of them in the Comments section below. If you feel there are other texting apps out there I should have recommended in place of these three, let me know in the Comments section, too! I’m always on the lookout for great iOS apps and want to hear from you about them.