Earlier this month word got out that Facebook was trialing a free voice calling feature in Canada. We said that, if those tests went well, the company would expand to the US. Well, things must have gone swimmingly because, just two weeks later, American customers are starting to see the same feature turn up in the Messenger app. After updating to the latest version, just tap the "i" icon in the top right hand corner while viewing a conversation with a person and you'll see a button for a "free call." The voice call needs to be made over WiFi, however, so don't expect to completely replace your contact list and dialer yet (update: calls can be made over a cellular data connection as well). We've reached out for comment from Facebook, and we'll let you know the moment we hear back. In particular we're wondering when Android users can expect to see the same option turned on for them. Let us know in the comments if Facebook's VoIP has been turned on for you.
Update: We just heard back from a Facebook spokesperson who said "you can only connect with a Facebook friend who also has [the latest] Messenger installed on their iPhone" and that "it's only available on iOS." If you satisfy the requirements and you're still unable to see the Free Call feature, it might not be available yet for you or your friend. We also confirmed that there are no special privacy settings to enable or disable if you want it. Join us after the break for our first impressions.
Simply glancing at our contact list did little to tell us who we could actually call -- there's no visual cue to identify which friends are using the Messenger app. Finding a viable contact means probing actual profiles and sussing out candidates by the color of their "free call" button. After some effort, we finally found one that wasn't greyed out, summoning a call screen and avatar alongside a four button control panel: end-call, speaker, mute and minimize. We also heard a faint "ringing" sound, almost like that of a doorbell. Incoming calls are marked by a soundless notification alert, with nary a buzz -- certainly not something that would have us reaching for the phone unless it was already in front of us.
Call quality is remarkably good, on par with a landline (yes some of us still talk on copper). Calls made over LTE betrayed a touch more static and fuzz, but voices still came through crystal clear. While we would still like a better interface to see which of our Facebook friends we could call, we remain optimistic about the service. At first blush, it appears much easier to use than Skype or other VoIP services simply because the contacts list is already pre-populated with our pals. And with the excellent call quality, we could definitely see this as a viable alternative to regular phone service especially in areas with poor coverage. Beware, cellular carriers?
Nicole Lee contributed to this report.