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5 Push-to-Talk Apps That Turn Your Smartphone Into a Walkie-Talkie

When was the last time you saw a walkie-talkie? Look in your pocket. Several smartphone apps mimic the walkie-talkie experience of instant push-to-talk communication.

Cave drawings, smoke signals, letters, Pony Express, telegrams, phone calls, text messages. From the dawn of civilization, man has experimented with different modes of communication, each with pros and cons. Smoke signals, for example, contribute to far fewer car accidents than text messages. Text messages, on the other hand, leave much less soot.

You might think that we’ve exhausted every variation on electronic communication — text, audio, video — but you’d be wrong. A new one is quietly winning over millions of gadget fans. They’re free apps with names like Voxer, HeyTell and Zello, and they really do mess with the rules of the game.

Nobody’s settled on a good name for this communications category. But if we call them voice-texting apps, or walkie-talkie apps, you’ll get the idea.

They work on iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, Android phones and Windows phones. You open the app, tap someone’s name, hold down the big Talk button and speak. A second after you start talking — yes, even before you’re finished — your voice bursts to life, extremely clearly, on your friend’s phone, wherever it may be in the world.

Your buddy can respond to you by pressing his own Talk button, and the conversation is under way.

Now, before you roll your eyes — “These youngsters today! Why do they need so many different ways to talk!?” — consider all the ways these apps improve on existing modes of chat.

Way 1: If you’re driving, walkie-talkie communication is far safer than texting. You never have to look at the phone. The Talk button is generally gigantic. It’s like trying to hit a barn door with a softball.

Way 2: Speaking is far quicker and more accurate than typing. There are no misrecognitions to correct.

Way 3: Voice is far more expressive than a text message. Nobody will ever say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I misunderstood the tone of your text message!”

Way 4: These apps have some advantages over phone calls, too. They don’t use up any of your cellular minutes. Your utterances are transmitted by Internet and use up very little data. And, of course, these apps let you communicate free wherever you can find a Wi-Fi hot spot, even when you’re out of cellular range or out of the country.

Way 5: In some situations, walkie-talkie messages are more useful than phone calls. A phone call is understood to be a conversation with defined starting and ending points.

Voice messaging apps foster a different kind of connection. It’s not one six-minute conversation; it’s sporadic bursts throughout the day. Less like a meeting, more like an intercom — with a global reach. You pipe up when you have something you want to ask or say; you’re silent the rest of the time. Like text messages, say, or those Sprint Nextel phones that work as walkie-talkies.

By the way, don’t worry about being interrupted by some idiot blaring out of your phone in a moment of intimacy, concentration or church. If the app is not actually open, then incoming voice messages simply notify you silently with an alert bubble, as a text message would. (And it doesn’t even do that until you visit your phone’s Settings app and permit notifications for that app.) Also, you can turn the speakerphone function on or off.

Each app preserves your utterances on a History screen so you can replay them later. If you were to listen to mine, you’d find a lot of exchanges that begin, for example, “Hey, did you say right or left at the Taco Bell?” or “Sorry to bug you — have you seen that flashlight we bought last week?” or “I just saw that tweet. Very funny.”

The only hard part is getting started. You have to install the app and then somehow connect it to your friends, co-workers and family. Most apps offer to auto-import your Facebook friends, or you can choose a contact from your phone’s address book and send a text-message invitation (which contains a link for downloading the app).

Once you stumble through the setup process, the rest is easy. Each app offers a Favorites list of some kind that lets you list the important people in your life — spouse, children, employees, bosses, friends, old school buddies back home.

What’s really amazing is that these apps are free. If you have an app phone, there’s no reason on earth you shouldn’t go try one out right now.

The question is, then, which one? The iTunes and Android stores list dozens of similar apps. These apps are mutually incompatible, so you want to choose the most popular one, because you’ll increase the odds that your contacts have the same app.

Here are the five that seems to have the most fans and highest ratings on the iTunes store.

iPTTnull

(Free: iPhone)

iPTT is one of the App Store’s original push-to-talk apps. It’s just like a walkie-talkie. It provides one-to-many group communication, one-to-one communication within a group channel (called “whisper”) or straight one-to-one communication with a friend. If you want that kind of capability, it doesn’t get any simpler.

TiKL Touch Talk Walkie-Talkie

(Free: iPhone, Android)

Another simple but great push-to-talk app. With TiKL, all you need are a contact list and a data plan. It supports group messaging and push-to-talk calls. For users who want to skirt voice and data plan restrictions, a simple app like this one could be the answer.

 Voxer

(Free: iPhone, Android)

Ever wanted to leave a friend a voice message but didn’t want to call them? They might actually pick up the phone and then you would have to, you know, actually talk to them. That can be awkward. “Yeah, I was just going to leave a voicemail…” Voxer functions like a walkie-talkie except that it sends messages rather than real-time dispatches. The app runs on iPhone and Android, it’s free, and it works over any data connection, from Wi-Fi to EDGE and everything in between. It allows you to send text messages, location messages and photos.

 HeyTell

(Free: iPhone, Android, Windows Phone)

HeyTell is a lot like Voxer but with more customization (and it runs on Windows Phone as well as iPhone and Android). It has three levels of privacy, allowing you to add or block friends from Twitter and Facebook depending on how open you want your communications to be. It is ad-free but has a decent list of in-app purchases to change notification alert sounds, enable group messaging and add emojis to your name. Like Voxer, it works on any type of data connection. HeyTell is extremely concerned with privacy, going out of its way to give users options to opt into functions including sending location data.

 Zello

(Free: iPhone/iPad, Android, BlackBerry)

Zello (formerly LoudTalks) offers both push-to-talk apps and an application programming interface (API) and software development kit (SDK) so developers can add push-to-talk functionality to their own apps. The enterprise capabilities of this kind of technology are vast. Remember those old Sprint/Nextel commercials where construction workers uses their cell phones as walkie-talkies? Well, now you can do it without Sprint/Nextel, across platforms and carriers. The Zello apps, at their core, are simple live communication channels. Like Voxer, they also save messages for replay later.

But that’s O.K. For them, there are always smoke signals.

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