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WhatsApp and alternatives – what’s the best messaging app in 2021?

The best apps for chatting with friends that balance accessibility, privacy and features

WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messaging app. However, due to (ironically) poor messaging about upcoming changes to its terms and conditions, WhatsApp has spent much of 2021 firefighting as millions of users flee.

The problem stemmed from people believing the Facebook-owned company would start sharing user data with Facebook. That an ultimatum was provided – accept the new terms or lose access to your account – further stoked people’s fears.

In reality, little is changing. As WhatsApp points out in its FAQ, the new terms are related to options for messaging businesses. And as privacy advocates note, WhatsApp already offers end-to-end encryption on messages. In other words, WhatsApp can’t see what you’re saying.

Still, with people’s general distrust of all things Facebook, we thought this an ideal opportunity to explore WhatsApp, some alternatives for iPhone, whether it’s worth switching, and who each app is best suited to.

WhatsApp Messenger (free)

Best iPhone messaging app for most people

The big advantage with WhatsApp over the competition is its installed user base – north of two billion devices. Chances are, whoever you want to chat with is already using it. Even if they aren’t, the barrier to entry is low, with a swift sign-up process.

Despite hyperbolic claims in the media, WhatsApp is solid from a privacy perspective. Conversations are end-to-end encrypted, so WhatsApp cannot spy on what you’re saying. No logs are kept. Messages can be set to self-destruct. Groups are simple to set up.

Downsides? There’s no iPad app, WhatsApp voice chat quality can be dismal, and the reliance on a cell phone number for identity verification might be a red line you’d sooner not cross. But short of you loathing Facebook to the point of refusing to use any related services, WhatsApp is the best option for iPhone messaging when your contacts are using a range of platforms.

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Messages (free)

Best iPhone messaging app for Apple users

Apple’s Messages app is on every iPhone – but if you don’t own Apple kit, you’re not invited to the party. Although the app does support SMS, the broader Messages experience is exclusively for Apple users.

If you and your friends – or a group of friends – are all-in on Apple, this won’t matter, and you can get on with enjoying arguably the best messaging option for you. Messages is usable, optimized for Apple hardware, and only compresses images when necessary. What you send is secure, and you can create groups and start video chats.

Being that it’s from Apple, Messages has a smattering of iPhone/iPad app integration as well. This varies in terms of functionality, with many apps going no further than offering sticker packs. But some are more ambitious, adding to Messages things like in-feed games, payments, location maps, and the means to post data about weather forecasts and the night sky.

Signal (free)

Best iPhone messaging app for privacy

Signal was co-founded by Brian Acton, who’d previously co-founded WhatsApp. He left the latter behind after a bust-up with Facebook over the service’s future, and resolved to give people access to private communications through a new encrypted messaging app.

It should therefore be no surprise that Signal goes big on privacy and transparency. The app is open source, so geeks can poke around the code and ensure everything’s above board. Messages are encrypted and media can be defined as view-once before vanishing forever. There are nice additional features, such as the app-specific PIN lock and the means to block the app preview from the iOS app switcher.

The app is less feature-rich than WhatsApp, but that’s a benefit. The interface is straightforward and simple. In all, it’s a great messaging app that’s broadly considered the most trusted option for those in the know. The problem will be convincing enough of your contacts to join.

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Threema ($3/£3)

Best iPhone messaging app for anonymity

Being the only paid app in this round-up presents a problem for Threema: there’s friction enough in convincing friends to join a new service – and that substantially increases when they must pay.

However, for a few bucks Threema does offer key advantages over its rivals. The most notable differentiator is combining privacy and anonymity. Unlike the apps mentioned so far, your account can be tied to a randomly generated Threema ID rather than your phone number or an Apple ID. Additionally, the service immediately deletes messages after they’ve been delivered and files are stored locally, on your device. The idea is to prevent anyone from being able to access or misuse personal information.

Further interesting ideas include inline polls, an agree/disagree response in one-to-one chats, and QR code verification to confirm a contact’s identity. All of which suggests this is the best app for, we dunno, spies? But there’s no doubting Threema does enough to justify its price tag. The question is whether enough people you know will be willing to pay.

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Discord (free)

Best iPhone messaging app for communities

Discord is different from other apps in this round-up. Although the platform can be used for messaging and video calls, its focus is on creating communities. Historically, these were based around gaming, but that is changing.

The service’s flexibility means it can be used for all kinds of messaging, from friend groups to classrooms. Assuming you can get contacts on board, you can communicate via direct messages or set up DM groups with up to ten members. Should that prove limiting, you can create Discord servers (channels) that are public or private.

With Discord’s aims being different from those of products like Signal, you must adjust your expectations accordingly. There’s no end-to-end encryption, for example, and the service can – optionally – scan direct messages, to check for unsafe content. However, it’s ideal when you want to immerse yourself in wider communities – or when your idea of messaging veers more towards public than private.

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