Facebook has always wanted its Messenger app to be an all-in-one communications platform -- a single program in which users can connect with one another in whatever medium they choose. On Tuesday, Messenger got an important new addition: free video calls, similar to those available in Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts, for users living in the US, UK, Canada, and 15 other countries.
The video calls will run on the Voice-Over-IP (VoIP) protocol, and will work over WiFi as well as 3G/4G cellular connections. If you’re chatting with a friend over text, you can tap a video camera icon in the upper-right corner of your screen to start a video chat. The chat will default to your phone’s front-facing camera, but you can also switch to the back camera if you want to show your friend where you are or what you’re doing.
Messenger will automatically adjust the video depending on the strength of your cell connection, so things don’t get too choppy. Facebook will automatically notify you if your connection becomes too weak for video, and you’ll have the option of switching to an audio-only call to save bandwidth. You can also turn off your own video feed and bump up the quality of the incoming video, which would be useful in situations where one person is travelling and you want to be able to devote all available bandwidth to seeing what they’re seeing.
Facebook has offered video calling from within its desktop app since 2011, when it partnered with Skype. Right now mobile users and desktop users can’t make video calls to one another, but Facebook is planning to enable that feature very soon, according to TechCrunch’s Josh Constine.
Facebook is also planning a slew of new features to be included in subsequent updates to the Messenger app, including automatically-stabilized videos (so your picture stays relatively steady, even if you’re holding your phone at arm’s length) and group video chatting, which is already available in Skype and Google Hangouts, but not in FaceTime.
It’s worth mentioning that video chatting will chew through data very quickly if you’re on a mobile connection. Messenger uses efficient encoding to try to minimize the amount of bandwidth needed for a call, but users should still try to stick to making video calls over WiFi whenever possible. Facebook also offers a way to prevent videos that pop up in your News Feed from auto-playing, which helps users avoid burning through their monthly mobile data allotment too quickly.