Getting started with Messages

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If you thought the only way you could use your Mac to communicate with other people was to send email messages, I’m about to brighten your day. For years the Mac OS has supported instant messaging, a form of texting similar to sending and receiving messages with a mobile phone.

In days past this was done with an application called iChat. iChat was significantly reworked, renamed Messages to reflect its relationship with the iOS app of the same name, and released in finalized form with Mountain Lion. Messages supports a number of services including AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, and Jabber in addition to Apple’s own FaceTime video messaging and iMessage services. (iMessage is a scheme that allows you to send messages, documents, photos, videos, contacts, and group messages over Wi-Fi and cellular connections to iOS devices running iOS 5 or later and Macs running Mountain Lion. Unlike the SMS services offered by mobile phone carriers, it’s free.)

Messages is relatively easy to use, but it has a certain depth. In this lesson we’ll focus on its interface and basics.

Ready from the get-go

If you’ve added an iCloud account to your Mac, Messages is ready for you to use. Unlike with other kinds of accounts—Google or Yahoo, for example—you don’t have to choose to enable messaging in the Mail, Contacts & Calendars system preference. Your iCloud account is automatically added to Messages. Before we talk about the other kinds of accounts you can add, let’s focus on Messages with an iCloud account.

Launch Messages, and you’ll see a single Messages window. The left side of the window (which currently has nothing in it) will eventually display the names of any people you’re conversing with (even if the last communique was sent days ago). Along the top you find a Search field, which you use to look for particular users in the list below as well as for words that appear in one or more of your chats. Next to the Search field is a New Message button that, when clicked, creates a new conversation.

The right side of the window shows a To field, a Plus (+) button, and an area for displaying messages. Much as with Mail, if someone is in your list of contacts (as entered in the Contacts application) and has an email address or phone number registered with Messages (this would automatically be anyone with an iCloud account as well as email addresses and iPhone phone numbers manually added by that person), you can simply start typing their name and select the name you want from the resulting list. If you’d prefer to add a contact from a list of your contacts, click the Plus button to reveal that list.

Sending and receiving messages

At the bottom of the window is the message field where you enter your message. Once your missive is complete, just press the Return key on your Mac’s keyboard to send it. Unlike with SMS messaging or Twitter tweets, you needn’t worry about the length of your message, as there’s no character limit. Note, however, that the Messages window isn’t the best way to view lengthy screeds where a lot of scrolling is required. For that kind of thing, stick with email.

Overview of the Messages window.

Messages you send will appear on the right side of the window in a colored bubble (blue by default, but you can change it within Messages’ preferences). When a message has been successfully sent, the word “Delivered” will appear below the message.

Any message you receive will appear on the left side of the window in a white bubble, and the sender’s name or phone number (depending on the device that sent it) will appear in the left column. To reply to the message, just make sure the sender is highlighted on the left; then type your answer into the message field, and press Return. As you start to reply, the person you’re chatting with will see a bubble that contains an ellipsis, telling them that you’re working on your reply.

Brighten up your message with a smiley.

You can use this message field to send more than text. For example, if you’d like to add a little personality to your message just click on the smiley face on the right side of the field and choose an appropriate icon. (You can also type in a standard emoticon such as ;) or :\ and it will be transformed into a richer image.)

You can also transfer files to the other person by dragging them into the message field. If you receive an image, that image will appear as a thumbnail within the Messages window. To retrieve it, just drag it to the desktop. Other attached files will display a small icon, their name, and a downward-pointing arrow icon. Click on that icon, and the file will be placed in your account’s Downloads folder. You can also access files by choosing Windows > File Transfers. These include files you’ve received as well as sent.

Next: Using other accounts, and more.

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