The iPhone revolutionized the mobile market, but the actual phone and messaging experience hasn’t changed too dramatically. Viber (free, App Store) is a VoIP app that aims to improve your talk and text experience with some remarkable new tools. It might even save you a little money in the process, with free voice and text messages to other Viber users.
Setting up Viber is fairly straightforward: just enter your phone number and a user name, then enter the activation code Viber sends via SMS. I was impressed when setting up Viber on my Samsung Galaxy S III when the app automatically detected the activation text—a feature surely impossible in iOS.
For better or worse your Viber account is tied to your existing phone number. This means you’ll have to create a new account when you migrate to a new phone, though the developers tell me your data should still be available. However, the big advantage is that Viber will automatically detect which of your contacts is already using the service.
This is in stark contrast to Google Voice, which lets you create a new, independent phone number that will redirect to the devices of your choosing. Viber is focused more on communication, so look at Google Voice if you want to merge multiple phone numbers behind a single number.
Once you’re up and running, Viber will automatically import all your contacts into its own directory. From here you can quickly call or send messages using either Viber or your normal data plan. This is smart, since it encourages you to use Viber as your one-stop-shop for voice and messaging.
The other sections are for messaging, recent calls, a keypad, and settings. The interface is very iOS, with tabs running along the bottom bar, but I preferred the Android version’s streamlined approach which condensed the app down to three sections.
Viber is obviously keen to use design features that iOS users are familiar with, but I’d like to see a more imaginative and elegant design that looks like an iOS app.
Calls and Messaging
The biggest drawback of Viber on iOS is answering phone calls. When your device is locked, the call appears as an onscreen alert. It will ring using a special Viber chime but only vibrate once if your phone is silenced, and you still have to slide the unlock bar and enter your device passcode if you have one. This greatly diminishes the app’s utility as a full-scale phone replacement, but this is an iOS issue.
Calls aren’t handled by your cellphone carrier, but instead routed through Viber’s VoIP network. This means there might be some latency issues with your call, which Viber tries to address with a handy quality indicator. Remember that when you’re not connected to WiFi, a Viber call will count towards your data plan but will probably be cheaper for some calls—particularly to other countries.
One of Viber’s best features is seamlessly transferring a call from your phone to your computer and vice versa, provided you’ve installed the Viber desktop software. The two work together brilliantly, suppressing notifications on one if you’re using the other to avoid irritating notifications.
You can also transfer a call from Viber to your normal voice network. Doing so places your Viber call on hold, and then starts a new call with the stock dialer, meaning it’s not quite a seamless experience. In my testing, some of my calls had severely degraded voice quality, and the ability to jump back to my carrier’s network was useful but would defeat the purpose of a cheap call.
It’s through messaging that Viber seeks to differentiate itself from the traditional phone experience. You can send photos, videos, locations, custom smileys (and other icons), and large Viber-made “stickers.” This last option is unique to the service, and eye-catching, but certainly not for everyone. Note that if you’re sending Apple’s built-in emojis, non-iPhone users won’t be able to view them.
You can also set a custom background for your chat, though it will only appear on your phone, and add multiple participants for a group chat. Viber shows you when your message has been seen by the recipient, and when the other person is typing similar to iMessage. This can be particularly useful to keep participants from stepping on one another in group chats. From the main chat page you can search your messages for words or users, and Viber will refine the results as you type. This is especially useful when you remember what you said, but not to whom you said it.
I was particularly impressed by how quickly Viber sent and received pictures and video, which was remarkably fast even when my phone was connected over the cellular data network. Viber limits your video upload to 10MB, which is about 1.5 minutes of shooting time.
On iPhone, Viber has stiff competition from iMessage, which has many of the same features and famously includes end-to-end encryption. While many of the messaging features stand out on Android, Viber struggles to differentiate itself on iOS. Especially when iMessage also supports FaceTime, a feature Viber can only reproduce on the desktop version.
A Quick Note on Encryption
In my discussions with Viber’s team, they were cagey about how their service was secured. They’d only go so far as to say that, “a lot of things in the system are encrypted” and assured me that they take security seriously.
To their credit, Viber does include an option to deactivate your account and export your message history. But the app is clearly built with user experience first and foremost, and security as a back-end concern. If totally encrypted conversations are what you’re after, you should probably look elsewhere, given Viber’s non-disclosure of their techniques.
Should You Get the Viber Vibe?
With Viber, you get all the functionality of your phone, with more features. Viber really shines as a means to avoid paying for SMS messages and calls—though the latter is really only a practical cost-saving measure when connected to a WiFi network. The ability to switch between a device call and a PC call is excellent, and well executed.
Viber’s flagship features for messaging struggle, however, against the seamlessly integrated iMessage. Stickers are a nice start, but I’d like to see more substantive messaging features that really stand out. Viber also doesn’t have the powerful blocking tools and independent phone number of Google Voice.
Of course, the biggest draw of Viber is free calls and texts to other users, regardless of their platform or country, and the Viber team has promised that they will never start pushing ads or begin charging for those services. That’s great, but Viber needs a touch more elegance and unqiue feautres to be really great on iOS.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc