Handcent SMS: Straight Up or With a Twist

Handcent SMS, an SMS messaging application by Handcent, is available free from the Android Market.I had an idea the other day: I wondered whether there was a text-messaging application available for Android that offered a soft keyboard similar to the iPhone’s. I checked out the Android Market and found that Handcent’s SMS app had the highest rating of the messaging apps, so I decided to try it.

With a little polishing, this could be a five-star app. As it stands, other than a few quirks, it does exactly what I was looking for.

Handcent’s messaging interface presents sent and received messages in speech bubbles, much like you’d see on the iPhone. You can change the colors of the message bubbles and even the text inside. That’s a good thing, because the defaults are a cheesy lime green and baby-aspirin orange. I changed mine to purple and blue. Much more appealing.

Notification Reduction

When you first install the app, you will get double notifications when a message comes in. This is easily remedied by turning off notifications on the native SMS application. As a bonus, Handcent by default uses a blue LED on the earpiece, and you can change the color and flash rate. Those options aren’t available in the native app.

Next to the text bubbles are the time (if it was sent today) or date of the message, a convenient bit of information.

Navigating the interface is done in very much the same was as the native SMS app on Android phones, so you don’t need to learn much. To type a message, you touch the dialog bar at the bottom and an iPhone-like soft keyboard appears at the bottom of the screen. I had the same issues with it that people had when the iPhone first came out — hitting the wrong keys because my thumbs are wide and the keys are skinny.

Orient Yourself

Turn the phone to a horizontal orientation, and the keyboard turns with you, becoming a wider version of the soft keyboard, which is much easier to use than the vertical version. It’s notable that this function — or its absence — was a sore spot with iPhone owners for a good long time, and it just recently arrived for that platform. That’s evidence to me that the Android platform — with its open nature and unrestricted method of distributing applications — is on a faster innovation trajectory than the iPhone.

If you want to use the G1’s hard keyboard, go right ahead. That’s three choices for input, and you can pick whichever works best for you given the circumstances. I find I’m able to type more quickly and accurately with the hard keyboard, and if I want to shoot off a quick text, the vertical keyboard is often faster. With continued use, my accuracy is improving on the vertical keyboard.

The same auto-punctuation and auto-caps functions you’re used to on the native SMS app also exist on Handcent SMS, so you won’t miss those. It claims to also auto-correct, but I didn’t see that happening while I used the app.

Handcent lacks MMS support, but I rarely use MMS anyway, so it’s not a huge problem for me. Others, however, have commented that the application just isn’t complete without it. You can be the judge of that.

The only other knock I can come up with for this application is the lag that occurs when you switch orientation and when you first start it up. It takes maybe two seconds for the display to catch up in both cases. It’s one of the refrains on the app’s Android Market comments, and the developers appear to be making regular updates, so I look for Handcent SMS to just get better from here.

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