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Unhand that phone! Texting tools for the big screen

Don't cramp your style texting on that teeny-tiny smartphone. There's no need, especially when you consider how many apps and services make it easy for you to text from the roomy comfort of your computer's monitor and keyboard.

We tested five services to see how well they worked, and whether they were able to reliably bring the convenience of texting on your smartphone to your PC. Good news: Most were impressive, many are free, and all were easy to use.

All of the solutions we tested work with Android phones, as its open nature allows apps more access to your phone's messages. Apple's limits are more restrictive, and as such, most of the services we tested don't work with iOS devices. And, even those that do come with some limitations that make them less than desirable.

MobiTexter

Like many of the services we tested, MobiTexter (free) works with Android devices only, and it requires that you install an app on your Android phone. Once you install the app on your phone, you register your Google account with it, and head over to your PC. From your browser, MobiTexter asks for access to your Google account, including your contacts. Once you grant it permission, the site links you right to the main texting tools.

MobiTexter's Web interface is basic, but serviceable. It automatically pulls in your most recent text message conversations, which are displayed in a list on the left side of the page. On the right, you have fields for entering new individual or group texts.

MobiTexter limits you to 160 characters per message, and displays incoming messages in small pop-up windows. It does let you type more than 160 characters, but it starts a new message each time you reach the limit. And while it does display messages in conversation threads, it doesn't automatically add incoming messages to those threads, which is unfortunate. It makes it harder to reply naturally when the message to which you're replying doesn't show up in the conversation view.

I also wish that MobiTexter supported MMS, so you could send pictures and videos. Unfortunately, it doesn't. Still, MobiTexter is free and is a reliable way to send and receive basic texts on your computer.

BrowserTexting

Spot the trend: BrowserTexting ($10), too, works with Android devices only. And, also like many of the products included in this round-up, it's a two-part solution, as it's both an app that you install on your phone and a Web app that you use on your computer.

You first need to install the app on your Android phone, which is a quick and simple process. You then fire up your computer's browser and head to BrowserTexting.com. The setup process here was also simple and streamlined: The website displays QR code that you scan to connect your phone to your browser.

Then you're good to go. BrowserTexting automatically displays a list of your contacts. You can select one from the list or enter a number on the screen to begin texting. Once you start the message, BrowserTexting brings up past conversations with that person right on the screen, so you can view your texting history as a conversation, just as you would on your phone. You can send MMS messages and group texts, too. New messages pop up on your computer screen, and all of your correspondence is synced back to your phone.

The interface is bland, featuring little more than a big blank space for messages, but easy enough to understand. I like that BrowserTexting offers extensions for Firefox and Google Chrome, which allow you to read and compose messages without opening a dedicated browser window or tab. And I like that it opens new text message conversations in tabs, making it easy to switch between them.

I did notice a slight delay when clicking around the interface, whether I was entering a contact name or number or trying to compose a message. That's a minor annoyance, though. More troublesome is BrowserTexting's price: at $10 (after a 30-day free trial), this application is expensive. When most of the competitors are free, an application that costs $10 has to offer far more features. And this one doesn't. BrowserTexting is just as good as some of its rivals, but it costs far more.

DeskSMS

Like BrowserTexting and MobiTexter, DeskSMS ($5/year) is strictly for owners of Android devices. And like those services, DeskSMS requires the installation of an app on your Android phone before you can use it on your computer.

To use DeskSMS, you must grant the Android app permission to access your Google account. You then open a browser window on your computer and head to desksms.appspot.com. (Like BrowserTexting, DeskSMS is available as Web app that works in most browsers, and as an extension for Firefox and Chrome.) Here, you log in and grant the Web app the same permission to access your Google account. You can choose to sync your Google contacts, too.

Then, you're ready to begin texting--although that's not immediately apparent, due to DeskSMS's barren Web interface. You simply get a blank screen, with the DeskSMS logo, a login button, and a field for entering a name or number at the top. I kept trying to logi n, thinking that this button was displayed because my login hadn't worked. After several attempts, I decided to try entering a number in the available field instead, and was pleasantly surprised to see my contacts appear as soon as I began typing.

Once you enter a number or contact name, DeskSMS displays a field on the site for entering your text message, which is limited to 160 characters. You can also call the number you've entered, but the phone call will be placed from your actual Android phone, not your computer. This could be a handy way to make calls if you're already wearing a headset, but beyond that, it's not terribly useful.

More useful is DeskSMS's integration with Google. It sends a copy of text messages that you've received to your Gmail or Google Talk accounts, if you'd like. This allows you to see and respond to your messages from yet another interface, which is handy if you're already using those services.

Still, DeskSMS has its limitations. It doesn't allow you to send MMS messages, and I wish that it offered a conversation view. It doesn't display your texting history, which would allow you to view past conversations. And even when you get a text in response to one you've sent via DeskSMS, the Web app only displays it in a pop-up notification, it never adds it to the texting field you use for composing messages. When you consider that these limitations come in an application that costs you $5 a year, well, that makes DeskSMS even harder to recommend.

Mysms

Mysms is the only service I tested that works on iPhones and Windows Phones in addition to Android devices. It does require that you install an app on your handset to use it, but its desktop component is not-solely browser-based. It's available in a desktop client that you can download and run locally on your PC...and it's the only product here that does. That's why mysms looks good on paper. But this free service leaves something to be desired when you actually use it.

To use mysms, you first install the app on your phone. Once set up, it sends you a text message with a PIN. You enter that PIN in whatever version of the application you'd like to use on your computer: The desktop version (available for Windows and Mac) or the Web app, which runs inside a browser. Mysms also is available for tablets running Android or iOS.

The Windows application and the Web app feature nearly identical interfaces, but the experience of using mysms varies greatly depending on what kind of phone you're using. I tested mysms on an iPhone and an Android phone. We did not have a Windows phone available for testing, but the company says that many of the restrictions set on the iPhone by Apple's limitations also exist for Windows Phone users.

If you're using an iPhone, Apple does not allow mysms to access your text messages, so you're restricted to texting other mysms users. If no one you know is using the application, you're out of luck. But if you can recruit a few friends to use the service, you'll be able to exchange messages for free--and they don't have to use the same type of phone as you.

If you're using an Android phone, mysms can do a lot more. You'll see your recent text messages in a column on the left side of the screen, organized by the phone number or contact name. Clicking on one of these brings up your message history with that person, displayed in a larger column to the right. You can compose a message at the top of the screen, and can choose to send it via mysms (which requires the recipient to use the app) or your mobile carrier. Additionally, mysms lets you use a service called mysms out, where you can purchase credits for sending texts to users who don't use mysms.

The look of mysms is appealing and the program has benefits for both Android and iPhone users, especially when you consider that you can choose between the downloadable desktop app and the Web app. I also like how mysms syncs any messages you send on your PC with the mobile app. But iPhone users without any mysms-using friends will find it hamstrung by Apple's limitations.

MightyText

Free texting service MightyText actually manages to live up to its name. Like most of the services tested for this story, it works with Android devices only, and requires that you install a mobile app on your phone.

The hardest part of using MightyText is the initial setup. Once the mobile app is installed and you're ready to use MightyText on your computer or tablet, you have to do a bit of tinkering with your browser's settings if you'd like to receive notifications of new messages. But MightyText guides you through the process-- which involves changing some security settings in Internet Explorer or installing a third-party add-on in Firefox--and it's a one-time thing.

MightyText's Web app is slick, and it lets you choose between a "classic view" and a "power view." The classic view uses a layout similar to Microsoft Outlook, where you see information about the sender in the first column and then message details in the next column. The power view, meanwhile, displays phone-sized fields on your computer screen that display recent text messages in conversation form. The power view lets you see more messages at once (it fit eight on my screen), while the classic view gives you more space for viewing message details. Switching between them is easy.

To send a message, you click the new message button, and a small window for composing it pops up in the lower right corner of the screen, reminiscent of how Google's Gmail works. And, much like Gmail, MightyText also puts a message composition window at the bottom of the conversations you view, making it easy to send a reply message.

MightyText lets you mark favorite messages, browse through contacts, and easily adjust the settings (which include whether pressing enter should or should not send your messages and whether you want to get pop ups to notify you of new messages and calls). It also displays your phone's battery life and notifies you of incoming and missed calls via pop-ups.

MightyText is slick, seamless, and--best of all--free. It's my desktop app of choice for my Android phone.


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