Hands on with Messages Beta for Apple OS X Lion

Apple recently announced the summer launch of Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and is giving users a sneak peek at what’s coming with the Messages Beta desktop app, which can now be downloaded to any Mac running Lion. That free download will disappear when Mountain Lion launches in late summer, and users who want it will have to upgrade. The basic idea of Messages is to take iOS 5’s iMessage and transplant it to the desktop while combining it with all the usual features of iChat. With Messages, you can now send messages to phones running iOS 5 from your desktop, and pick up the same conversation on your phone when you step away from your computer. Users can send unlimited iMessages to any Mac running Messages Beta or any iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch running iOS 5. The new app supports sending photos, videos, and attachments, and also includes a feature that can launch a FaceTime call. Just like iChat before, Messages Beta supports AIM, Yahoo!, Google Talk, and Jabber accounts. We took a hands-on look at the new app to see how well it performed. 

We like that the new Messages app takes its look mostly from iChat (or iMessage on the iPad) — it is pretty straightforward and most users will be familiar with the format. The ability to easily text people from your computer is handy, too. If you’re sitting at home and want to send a text, there’s no need to reach for your phone. Start a conversation with someone on iMessage via your desktop and you can (nearly) seamlessly continue that conversation on your iPhone when you head out the door. It’s also easy to chat via all your imaginable IM accounts, and we like that you can see messages from all different accounts in one window. 

When we first tested sending an iMessage from our desktop to our phone, we didn’t get the message on our phone and it took us a minute to figure out why. Turns out to receive anything from Messages Beta on your iPhone, you have to allow iMessages to be received at your Apple ID email address, not just your phone number. We didn’t have it set up that way already, although it was a simple problem to fix once we knew what to do. We set up our Messages Beta with accounts from Yahoo! and Google Talk and testing those plus sending messages to phones running iOS 5. The Yahoo! and Google Talk accounts worked seamlessly and we like being able to have everything in one window. We had a few more problems with the desktop-to-phone communication. 

At first when we tested sending messages to a coworker’s phone (after setting up to receive iMessages via our Apple ID email), we saw the full conversation on our Mac and received his messages on our iPhone, but the whole conversation didn’t transfer correctly. We did receive his messages to my iPhone, but only saw half of the conversation — none of our own replies showed up. We tested the same way again today, and this time the full conversation showed up on the Mac and the iPhone, no matter where we typed the replies from. We were glad to see that the problem corrected itself, but it’s an indication that the app is still fairly buggy. 

We also tested sending photos and files over Messages and had no issues there. Our biggest complaint about the service is that while it’s initially appealing to have everything in one place on your desktop, it can get rather confusing. In the window on your desktop, conversations arrange themselves based on what is most recent, and users currently have no control over this. Considering the fact that you could be sending messages over AIM, Yahoo!, Google Talk, or to someone’s phone, the constantly switching positions of conversations can get confusing really fast. We sent messages to our coworker via iMessage on his phone and through a Yahoo! account to test things out, and it wasn’t long before we were accidentally typing long paragraphs into the iMessage box instead of the Yahoo! IM conversation. 

There are definitely some kinks to be worked out, which is fair since the app is still in Beta, but we can imagine this being a pretty popular feature on Mountain Lion when it comes out. While it might be confusing and cause a few crossed lines at first, the idea of having everything synced across all your Apple devices is definitely appealing. We expect Apple to work out the kinks and possibly make a few changes — we’d suggest being able to arrange conversations how you choose and notifying users that they’ll have to activate an Apple ID email within iMessages to get the syncing to work — but the foundation is there for something that will make communicating even easier, no matter what device you’re connected to. 

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