Earlier this week, Facebook announced a new service allowing free phone calls to other Facebook users via their iOS Facebook Messenger app (iTunes link). The service is only available in Canada for the time being and only works on the iOS version of the Messenger app, so we decided to put it through its paces and see what it’s all about.
The way voice calls are integrated into your usual chat sessions is very fluid. You tap the “+” icon as you would if you wanted to add a photo to a conversation, and you’re greeted with the new option to “Record Voice”. Tapping that gives you a push-to-talk style button which you hold down during your speaking time. This is probably so that the audio clip is as short as possible so that it doesn’t chew through a heck of a lot of data. Good move on Facebook’s part there.
With fluidity in mind, the process of adding speech could have been improved if there was a separate record button available without having to change screens to see it. Voice dictation doesn’t work within Facebook Messenger for some reason, so having a record button in its place would have been nice.
There also exists the ability to make a call to your contact from the options screen. We’re not sure why this isn’t an option from your main inbox, where a small telephone icon would do to make a call directly. Finding the “Free Call” button is actually a bit of a pain, as it’s buried in the contact info pane which you get to by tapping the information icon in the top right of the screen. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but a little odd placement placement doesn’t make using the feature any smoother.
Perhaps the most important thing about Facebook’s new voice feature is call quality. While it was said to be on par with other solutions from Skype and Viber, we found the call quality to be a bit tinnier and drowned out than we would have liked. Also, with both WiFi and LTE connections, there were quite a few drops in the connection; nothing killed the call completely, but we’d miss a few words in a sentence here or there and it made for an incoherent call.
The interface when receiving a call is nice and, given a high-quality profile picture on a user’s account, can be quite beautiful (just check out Sean’s mug there). There aren’t any options to make three-way calls or receive any kind of voicemail, though you can record short audio clips and send them inline with the rest of your text conversations, and that feature is confirmed to work in group chats as well.
When we tried to send a voice clip to someone outside of Canada, the service worked, but they couldn’t receive phone calls. The voice clips are said to be an international rollout via the iOS app, and everything worked as expected on that front.
In all, the new service won’t do much to replace your existing Viber or Skype accounts. However, if you’ve already got Facebook Messenger installed on your iPhone, this does give you another option to use if someone just won’t answer your Skype call. Then again, maybe there’s a reason they’re not.