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A guide to the slick things you can do with Apple's overhauled messaging app

Most people are really digging iOS 10, the new, free operating system for the iPhone. But unless you’re 12 years old and already used to apps like WhatsApp and Facebook (FB) Messenger, you might find the new Messages app to be just a tad cluttered and confusing.

Apple (AAPL), wary of losing customers to creative messaging apps like What’s App, Google’s Allo, and Facebook Messenger, has radically overhauled its Messages.

Its special effects and cool interactions easily match most offerings of rival apps—and, thanks to a new Messages app store, even surpasses them. There are so many creative ways to express yourself now that “Oh, sorry—you must not have picked up on my tone over texting” will no longer cut it as an excuse.

Text-message conversations no longer look like a tidy screenplay. Now they can be overrun with graphics, cartoons, animations, and typographic fun.

It’s really not so bad, once someone takes you by the hand and shows you the ropes. Here—take my hand.

Meet the new Messages

The first thing you might notice is that the Send button no longer says Send. It’s now a blue up-arrow. And it’s more than a button. If you hard-press (or long-press) the blue arrow, you get a palette of four new sending styles. (NOTE: This menu of animations does not open if, in Settings, you’ve turned on Accessibility -> Reduce Motion. Bizarre.)

Left: The Bubble Effects palette. Right: Invisible Ink, before and after you drag your finger across it.
Left: The Bubble Effects palette. Right: Invisible Ink, before and after you drag your finger across it.

The first three—Slam, Loud, and Gentle—animate the typography of your text to make it bang down, swell up, and so on. For example, Slam (above, left) makes your text fly across the screen and then thud into the ground, making a shockwave ripple through the other messages.

The fourth special “Send with effect” is called Invisible Ink (above, right). It obscures your message with animated glitter dust until your recipient drags a finger across it. This idea is great for guessing games and revealing dramatic news, of course. But when you’re sending, ahem, spicy text messages, it also prevents embarrassment if the recipient’s phone is lying in public view.

When you hard-press (or long-press) the blue Send arrow, the fifth option is Screen. It opens a palette of full-screen animations, which fill the entire background of the Messages window to indicate your reaction to something—fireworks or falling confetti, for example. Swipe horizontally to preview each style before you commit to it.

The background of the Messages window is now your playground, too.
The background of the Messages window is now your playground, too.

(If your text says “congrats,” “happy birthday,” or “happy New Year,” Messages fills the screen with a corresponding animation automatically. Which may or may not get old fast.)

Meet the drawer

Most of the new Messages goodness is hiding in a “drawer” that contains three buttons. If you don’t see all three, tap the > button like this:

Left: Tap the > to open the drawer, if it's not already open. Right: The Photos, Digital Touch, and App Store buttons.
Left: Tap the > to open the drawer, if it’s not already open. Right: The Photos, Digital Touch, and App Store buttons.

From left to right, those icons represent Photos, Digital Touch, and Apps (also known as Everything Else).

Photos

If you want to send a photo to your conversation partner, you’ll find that it now takes two taps to see your photos: Once to open the drawer, and once on the Photos button.

When you tap the camera icon, you get this new photo picker.
When you tap the camera icon, you get this new photo picker.

Here’s the new Photos picker. It consists of a simplified Camera app and a simplified Camera Roll of your existing pictures—but it also gives you access to your actual Camera app and your actual Camera Roll (that’s new).

  • To take a photo, tap anywhere in the live preview (you don’t have to aim for the white round shutter button). Wait patiently until it appears in the Messages text box, ready to send.

  • The Photos browser also displays two scrolling rows of all photos you’ve taken recently. Tap one (or more) that you want to send.

  • To take a video, panorama, time-lapse video, slo-mo video, or any other fancier shot, tap the < (show below) and then tap Camera. You’ve just opened the regular Camera app.

  • If you tap the < and then tap Photo Library, you open the regular Photos app, where you can find your albums, videos, and other organizational structures of the regular Photos app, for ease in finding an older picture or video to send.

Tap here to get to the full-blown Camera and Photos apps.
Tap here to get to the full-blown Camera and Photos apps.

Once you’ve inserted a photo into the text box, you can edit it (that’s new) and even draw on it with your finger (also new) and type text on it (definitely new). Just tap it to open the editing window, and then tap Markup (to draw on it) or Edit (to edit).

Any photo can become your canvas.
Any photo can become your canvas.

Digital Touch

The second drawer button, the Heart icon, opens a palette of crazy interactive art features, mostly inherited from the Apple Watch.

  • Doodle with your finger. Tap the yellow dot to choose a color, then start drawing on the black background.

  • Shoot a photo or video, then deface it. Tap the camcorder icon to open the new camera mode, where you’ll find both a white “take a still” button and a red “record a video” button. You can draw on the photo after you’ve taken it; in fact, you can even draw on a video as you’re recording it. Your recipient will see the doodle “played back” on their screens, re-created line by line as you drew it.

  • You can send an animated heart, broken heart, fireball, or kiss. Tap the ^ button at the right edge for a cheat sheet. It’s single-tap for a ring of fire, tap with two fingers for a kiss, hold with two fingers for a beating heart, and so on. (No, the heart doesn’t beat at the speed of your pulse, as it does on the Watch; the iPhone doesn’t have a heart-rate sensor.) You can do those on top of a video that you record, too.

Now you, too, can send animated heartbeats and other &quot;digital touch&quot; animations.
Now you, too, can send animated heartbeats and other “digital touch” animations.

The App icon

OK, here it is: The rabbit hole into a world of options beyond belief.

Apple has created an app store just for add-ons to the Messages app. You can download “stickers” or animations, look through movie trailers and showtimes, exchange music files, plan a trip, send cash, play games, and on and on—right there in Messages, collaboratively with your buddy on the other end.

Apple starts you out with two. There’s Images, a searchable database of “reaction GIFs.” They let you respond to something someone says with, for example, a two-second loop of Kevin Spacey slow-clapping. And there’s Music, which lets you send a song, if you and your pal are both Apple Music subscribers.

Reaction GIFs at your command!
Reaction GIFs at your command!

But if you tap Store, you’ll find a universe of add-ons, both free and costing a couple of bucks. (You can search or browse this store just as you do the regular App Store.)

For example, you can download endless sets of “stickers”—animated or still icons—that you can drag anywhere onto any message you’ve sent, thereby adding your own sarcastic or emotional commentary to it. The Messages app store gives access to endless sets of free or for-purchase stickers.

The four-dots icon (left) is your portal into apps.
The four-dots icon (left) is your portal into apps. Swipe horizontally to move from one open app to the next.

Beyond iOS

You might well ask: What happens if I send one of these fancy animated goodies to somebody who doesn’t have iOS 10? Or even has… [shudder]…an Android phone?

In most cases, the recipient gets a still image instead of the full animation. The bubble effects and full-screen effects don’t go through to Android people at all; if you have an earlier iOS version, you get a text message that tells you what you’re missing—for example, “sent with confetti” (for full-screen effects) or “Liked the message” (for tapbacks).

Non-drawer goodies

Not all of the new Messages goodies are hiding in that drawer of three icons.

  • Phone as whiteboard. If you turn the phone 90 degrees, the screen becomes a whiteboard; what you scribble with your finger looks and feels like real ink on paper and gets sent as a graphic. (You’ll also see your previous masterpieces for quick re-use.) Just so cool.

Your finger is now your expressive tool.
Your finger is now your expressive tool.
  • Visual Web links. If someone pastes a web link, you see an actual thumbnail image of the resulting website instead of just the typed web address. And if you paste a link to a video on YouTube or Vimeo, your correspondent can play the video without leaving the Messages window.

  • Jumbo emoji. When you send one or two emoji symbols as your entire response, they appear three times as large as normal.

  • Auto-emoji. If iOS 10 has an emoji symbol for a word you’ve just typed, it shows that symbol right in the row of autocomplete suggestions. If you tap the emoji before tapping the space bar, you replace the typed word with the image. If you tap Space and then tap the emoji, you get both the word and the picture.

Autocorrect now offers emoji.
Autocorrect now offers emoji.
  • Auto-emoji part 2. When you tap the Emoji button on your keyboard, Messages highlights, in color, any words in your freshly typed (but not yet sent) message that can be replaced with an emoji symbol. Tap any highlighted word to swap in the icon. That’s a huge time saver—you’re spared the ritual of scrolling through hundreds of tiny symbols to find the one you want.

The emoji-replacment feature is a great idea.
The emoji-replacment feature is a great idea.
  • Tapback. If you double-tap a message you’ve been sent, you’re offered a Tapback palette: six little reaction symbols like the ones in Facebook’s Like palette. You can use them to stamp your reaction onto the other person’s text. (You can even change your stamp later in the chat, should your reaction change when you get new information.)

The tapback palette lets you react to a text without having to type anything.
The tapback palette lets you react to a text without having to type anything.
  • Auto-info. You know the three guesses about the next word you’re going to type (that appear above the keyboard)? Now, those suggestions include information you might want to type. If you type “I’m available at,” one of the suggestion buttons will include the next open slot on your calendar. If you say “Pogue’s number is,” the button will offer my phone number (if I’m in your Contacts). If someone asks “where are you?”, one of the buttons offers to drop a Map button.

Autocorrect is now Autoinfo.
Autocorrect is now Autoinfo.
  • Lower-res photos. In Settings -> Messages, you can opt to send lower-resolution photos. Why eat up your monthly cellular data allotment sending photos that are too big for your phone friends’ screens to show anyway?

  • Receipts one person at a time. Finally, you can now turn off Read Receipts (the indicator to the other person that you’ve read his or her texts) on a conversation-by-conversation basis, rather than turning it on or off for the entire app. (Tap the person’s name at the top of the screen to see the option.)

Clearly, this is a lot of stuff to cram into a tiny messaging-app screen, and you’re to be forgiven if you find it overwhelming, cluttery, and difficult to learn. It kind of is. No longer will the standard Messages screen look like a tidily typed screenplay.

But the white-hot popularity of rival messaging apps have clearly told Apple that this is what the people want.

The young people, anyway.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.