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Not too long ago, SMS and call minutes allowances were the key factors that consumers considered when signing up for a mobile phone contract. But that was before we woke up to instant messaging and calls apps.

We think they're a major reason why 61 per cent more uSwitch site users shopping for phones are now choosing deals by the mobile data allowance they offer than by monthly call minutes.

With free messaging, the chance to hold group conversations with multiple people simultaneously and the option to send video and audio messages, this breed of apps are an altogether more fun way to stay in touch. But that's really only half their appeal.

More importantly, because your conversations are included as part of your data plan, messages sent and calls made with these apps are completely free – even when messaging or calling friends overseas. That makes this type of app just the ticket for cost-conscious consumers.

But are all IM and free calls apps created equal? Not for a second. Here we round up the best to get you on-message.

1 WhatsApp?

whatsapp logo

With billions of users worldwide and 18 billion messages sent on New Year’s Eve 2012 alone, WhatsApp is justifiably the world’s biggest instant messaging and free calls smartphone app. It’s also arguably the best.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to download WhatsApp, which is available for iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and Windows Phone, is the jaw-dropping size of its user base. That means there’s a good chance that your friends will already be on it. Or soon will be.

Cross-platform support, so you can contact friends irrespective of which type of phone they use, is also a strong selling point. Add to that notifications when you get a new message, group chats, the option to store time-saving stock messages you made earlier (such as ‘In a meeting’) and data encryption and you've got a hugely impressive package.

The downside is that, unlike some of its rivals, you’ll have to pay to download WhatsApp. But since that’s likely to be 69p or so, it’s a small price to pay. Especially when you consider you’ll probably never pay for a text message again.

Find out more here: WhatsApp

2 Libon

Orange Libon Android app (large banner)

Like WhatsApp, Libon lets you instant message your friends for free, store your converstions in the Cloud and - if you've got an iPhone - send picture and video messages too.

It also features Skype-style free HD calls to other Libon users, for additional savings, speech to text conversion for voicemails so it's easier to pick them up and visual voicemail, giving you a visual interface for your voicemails. And because this works independent of your carrier, it doesn’t matter if your mobile phone provider offers visual voicemail. You'll still be able to avail yourself of the feature.

We love Libon. It's not just a very good instant messaging and calls service. It's also a fantastic all-in-one solution with tons of ways to communicate in a single app.

If you've got an Android phone running Froyo (Android 2.2) or above, you'll be able to get involved. iPhone owner? You'll need to be running iOS 4.3 or higher.

Find out more here: Libon

3 BlackBerry Messenger (BBM)

bbm messaging

Before WhatsApp came along, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) was the world's premier IM service and did more than any other service to open people's eyes to the joys of instant messaging apps. Previously exclusive to BlackBerry phones, it's set to arrive on Android and the iPhone this summer.

Beyond offering encrypted instant messaging, in its BlackBerry incarnation BBM also lets users send pictures, audio messages and other files. That's on top of free voice calls using the internet, free video calls for BB10 phone users and a Groups option that means you can share photos and appointments in your calendar with contacts.

The Android and iPhone versions will offer reduced functionality from the get-go (think: IM, photo messages and group sharing). But plans are afoot to add voice and video calls later this year.

Find out more here: BBM

4 Imo

imo app

IMO belies its pared-down look and feel and is consistently among the best rated IM services. That applies equally to tech site scribes' reviews and app-store user testimonies.

It's not hard to see why. It's precisely that simplicity that works for it. This means that it's simple to set up and offers an easy to use, clear interface.

IMO's feature set also takes in free voice calls, group messaging and photo sharing and the option to send pictures and video clips.

There's also a fully searchable chat history on your smartphone or on the web, so you can pin down those irksome, capricious work colleagues who ask you to do something and then act surprised and outraged when it turns out that's exactly what you have done.

Find out more here: IMO

5 Skype

skype iphone

As is the case with WhatsApp, Skype's chief selling point is that it's already the IM and free calls calls service of choice for millions worldwide. And it's hard to believe that at least some of your friends and family won't be among them.

It's also free to download, offers video calling and stellar sound quality when used over Wi-Fi.

Find out more here: Skype

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