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RCS Chat hands-on: Not yet iMessage for Android, but it’s a solid start [Video]

RCS Chat is now live within Google Messages in just two countries — the U.K. and France. We know all about the rich communication services and how they might offer something akin to iMessage, but for Android smartphone owners.

Some of us living outside of the U.S. don’t really understand why so many in North America still continue to send SMS on their mobile phones. Most of us have migrated to another service or messaging platform that offers similar features and enhanced functions over even iMessage.

Google clearly understands the frustrations of the “green bubble brigade,” and RCS and Chat are just two of the ways that messaging on Android phones is getting a much-needed overhaul. The problem that Apple knew about when rolling out iMessage is that waiting for carriers to implement RCS was never going to work. Google is taking control, and it’s about damned time, because without forcing these “Chat” features, we could have been waiting a lot longer.

Just what can you expect once these enhanced messaging features roll out globally? Let’s delve in.

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RCS: The basics — What you can and can’t do

Let’s start with the basics. Google Messages and Samsung Messages are the only “fully” RCS-enabled messaging apps that you can use to send any enhanced SMS-style messages. You can send GIFs, images, videos… heck, you can even send files like APKs and PDFs if you wanted to.

If you’re hoping for a flat copy or replica of iMessage for Android users, you’ll be a tad disappointed. Apple has a much more mature messaging platform complete with app integrations and extras that are only available on the iOS and Mac platforms.

That means no AR features or AR-style emoji can be shared. You can do pretty basic instant-messaging things like send your GPS location, GIFs, videos, stickers, text, voice notes, and files. That’s it. RCS isn’t able to mimic any of the advanced features found on iMessage just yet — with emphasis on yet.

Video files have an upper limit of 105MB. We’re not sure why that’s the limit, but if you wanted to forward videos to your friends and relatives, you may want to share a Google Drive or Photos link, should you be uploading large and long video files.

One neat option is that you can jump straight into a Google Duo call from Messages. However, it does take you out of the app and into Duo, rather than keeping you in the messaging view, and that would definitely be good for group chats and video calls.

RCS: In practice — What is it like to use?

The biggest hurdle for Google’s vision for RCS and Chat is undoubtedly the adoption rate. Google Messages is a great SMS client, but it isn’t presently the stock option for every single Android device on the market.

For those using phones that have Google Messages pre-installed and set as default, the switch will be seamless. Anyone who has installed Messages themselves will also have a smooth transition to RCS and Chat. Convincing the less tech-savvy or anyone else to switch to a new messaging app, even if it does offer a better experience, will still prove tough.

Firing up Google Messages, it feels just like it did before. Nothing has changed too drastically. You can send messages just like always, except the send button now features “SMS” above the little paper airplane icon. That helps you decipher if the message has been sent the old-fashioned way or via RCS.

You can alternatively long press a sent or received message, then press the system dropdown to check the message details. This will give you a short dialog box that gives you all the core information.

RCS Chat SMS fallback

SMS fallback is here. You will have to activate the feature and it gives you some options. Luckily, there are some options to choose between including asking before sending, resending automatically, or simply disabling altogether.

Sending a sticker, GIF, video, or file is as simple as it gets. You select the “+” icon and are given the array of options right where your keyboard would usually be found. You can then add all types of files and media. Recording a voice note is easy, but the quality isn’t great. You’re better off recording externally and sending as an attachment.

I’ve sent APK files, PDFs, and more with relative ease. The process is about as fast as on similar messaging apps like WhatsApp and iMessage. Initially, though, the app didn’t notify you of any content that failed to send, which has since been rectified.

One thing that Google has cleverly addressed is the ability to choose on a contact-by-contact basis how your messages and MMS are sent. Within a Chat, you’re able to specify if you want to only send SMS and MMS to that particular contact. This might be preferable if you have no data allowance at all, or are heading to an area where Wi-Fi and data connections are spotty at best.

Overall it is reminiscent of the original rollout of iMessage. It works without too much input. All you need to do is activate Chat features within Google Messages settings.

Looking forward — What does the future hold?

For me, the biggest compliment I can pay is that I am still continuing to use the Google Messages app to contact my friends (and colleagues) using the newly added messaging protocol.

There are some issues to overcome, such as the rollout clearly needs to be worked out in order to capture as much valuable data and feedback from the “real world.” At the moment, making a robust messaging system that can handle the basics such as video, images, GIFs, and, of course, text over various networks is the top priority.

For the privacy-conscious, there is still no implementation of client-to-server encryption, which means that RCS Chat will not offer anything like the end-to-end encryption found on WhatsApp, iMessage, or Telegram. While you’ll have further message functionality than SMS, there is potentially more sensitive data for third parties to intercept.

Allowing OEMs and carriers to adopt the protocol within their own apps will open up much greater communication options for tons of Android-powered devices. RCS and Chat can potentially overcome the install-rate problem, as many OEMs now ship their latest models with Google Messages as the pre-installed messaging option. That prevents the need for owners to have to install yet another messaging app.

RCS Chat Google Messages

Remember Allo? The ill-fated attempt at a VOIP-style messaging app actually had a ton of great features and is arguably the catalyst for this rollout. With RCS within Google Messages, we could see certain Allo features roll out and change the way we use “traditional” text messaging. There’s also the potential for further deep integration with Google and third-party services.

Want to book a taxi in a group and share the fare instantly using Uber? That can be added. So can the ability to split a check at a bar or restaurant, at least in theory. Where Apple currently has the upper hand with integration, Google can quickly gain ground with arguably better (and more useful) features.

Verdict — A solid start

Given the short time we’ve had to get to grips with this true long-term SMS replacement, messaging using RCS and Chat is actually an enjoyable, smooth experience. As predominantly a WhatsApp user and someone that has sent approximately 10 SMS messages in about six months, I’m surprised by how much more I enjoy the Messages experience than other alternatives.

It has a feeling of cohesion that can’t really be mimicked by a third-party app. With more OEMs now adopting Google Messages as the default SMS app, there is hopefully life in RCS that Google was unable to breathe into the now-defunct Allo.

Google Assistant integration and further app development could be an even greater catalyst for adoption — at least by those that understand the benefits of a digital assistant.

As it stands though, RCS and Chat within Google Messages might not be the iMessage contender at this point in time. That said, at this early stage, the future looks bright for the true SMS replacement.

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Avatar for Damien Wilde Damien Wilde

Damien is a UK-based video producer for 9to5Google. Find him on Twitter @iamdamienwilde. Email

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