I’ll say this about my iPhone: it’s a lot easier to connect with people with it than it is while using a Mac. My Mac doesn’t have anywhere near the messaging options: there’s no Whisper or Facebook Messenger available for Mac, and iMessage is often a lukewarm offering at best (although I am grateful it’s there). Google Hangouts is abysmally bad in Chrome and my iPhone — much worse than Gmail Chat ever was, in my opinion — so I’ve rarely used it.
But it’s hard to simply swear all these apps off — after all, some people might not have my number, and for them, Facebook or Hangouts is the easiest way to get in touch. That’s why I was glad to try out Flamingo, a Mac app built from the ground up for Google Hangouts, Facebook messaging, and even XMPP. Is it worth the purchase? Read on to find out.
Chat apps like Flamingo are luxury products. They aren’t necessarily needed, but they’re desirable and, just as often, easily attainable. Some will argue Flamingo’s $9.99 price is expensive, and it is. Not unlike Tweetbot, you’re paying for the undeniable luxury of using a native app with a beautiful design instead of using a set of web interfaces.
And yes, Flamingo is exceptionally beautiful. This is first-class app design of the highest standards. The developers talk about a unified design that brings together all your accounts into one window. Your contacts, which the app calls Buddies, are all available for access in a single pane. Likewise, a list of current conversations is always accessible in its own pane.
Even chats are available in a single window. In this sense, the design reminds me very much of Tweetbot. You can detach these chats and move them around your desktop, even putting them onto different Spaces. I prefer to keep everything in the unified single-window view, though, which simply appeals to my OCD.
There are other parts of the app that I really like. It’s visually obvious. Closing a chat window does not end the conversation; it simply closes a window. You knows when somebody is typing a response. The app makes beautiful use of user avatars from Facebook and Google, and makes great use of Notification Centre.
There’s also inline media. This is pretty cool stuff. Let’s say somebody wants to such are a picture with you on Facebook. They attach it to their message, and instead of forcing you to go through a series of windows to get to the picture or making you view it on Facebook’s website, it appears right in your conversation. This also happens with video.
What makes it really neat is that you don’t need to send your media through Facebook too. You can use a direct connection in the app to send whatever you need. If that fails, or you just want to be a little more organized with your files, you can send them with CloudApp for Droplr. More or less, this looks just like inline media in Twitter. It’s great, easy to use, and made seeing pictures from a friend’s travels to China and Prague a beautiful experience.
The app also offers built-in search. Not only is it insanely fast, but it’s also really accurate. It makes iMessage’s search looks like a joke, and for many people, it will be worth the price of the software. Sadly, the app only searches through conversations you’ve had on Flamingo, so it won’t search through any conversation history from the past few years. That being said, it works wonders for everyday search needs.
Of course, software designed well is just another way for many of us to describe incredibly opinionated design. Fair warning: Flamingo is opinionated. Of note are the in-app Preferences, which have very few options. It’s interesting, at least to me, because it’s easy to set up some preferences in other places in the app.
Of particular importance is typography. The app makes it easy to change fonts, kerning, and even the writing direction of your text (no doubt a great for international users). It’s great to see these settings, but it’s also odd to me that they weren’t simply given a space in the Preferences pane.
That’s it, though. There are no options to change the visual layout or modify the way conversations are presented, apart from dragging them away from the unified timeline and giving them their own window. There’s no colour choices, which will make some people cringe, and there’s no way to modify your personal information (apart from your profile pictures) in the app. I like opinionated software — especially when it’s designed as well as Flamingo — but I know it will turn some users off.
Lovely Accidents and Bizarre Happenstance
There’s one feature that I believe is an accident on the developer’s part. For me, though, I think it’s a huge perk. While chatting with friends in Facebook, Flamingo does not send read receipts. For me, this is a big deal that makes it worth the $10. Philosophically, I loathe read receipts. I think they create an imposition upon people to respond immediately to messages. I love that Flamingo doesn’t send them.
I also saw no easy way to initiate a group chat, which is a huge feature to be missing. I hope this one is on Flamingo’s list for updates.
Also worth mentioning right now is that Flamingo is still in its early days, and there are bugs and the occasional slowdown. The app often hangs when it’s refreshing your contacts list (which it doesn’t seem to do constantly), and will sometimes show an ellipsis in a conversation even if the person on the other end has gone offline. (To be fair, that could be a problem with Facebook or Google, since this happens in their respective web apps as well.)
Finally, the app uses more memory than it should. Flamingo is the sort of app you’re likely going to want open all the time, just in case somebody wants to reach you. It’s unfortunate, then, that it misbehaves with its RAM usage and CPU threads. Mavericks constantly alerts me that it’s taking up significant energy. It also seems to take longer than it should to activate App Nap. I have every confidence that these bugs will get sorted out in the next couple updates from the team, but I’m not sure Flamingo will work well without drawing considerable power from batteries on a MacBook. It seems to be a 50/50 chance.
Flamingo isn’t perfect, but for an app that’s only been around a couple weeks, it’s certainly a strong contender. I love it because it keeps me off Facebook’s web interface and gives me one less reason to use Chrome (which I use for Hangouts). Its seamless integration with OS X’s Notification Centre makes my life easier, and its beautiful and modern interface keeps me feeling sane.
In short? Flamingo is a luxury app if I’ve ever heard of one, but if you can afford it, I’d highly recommend it. I use it every day and I think it’s a fantastic addition to my Mac’s arsenal. In the future, I’d love to see stronger support for group chats and better memory usage, but if you’re willing to overlook those issues in favour of early adoption, I think you have a lot to look forward to in Flamingo. It stays open in my MacBook constantly right now.