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Anyone who’s ever been stuck at a nightclub, concert, or sporting event with spotty wireless connectivity knows the frustration of being unable to ping friends or family waiting nearby. That no longer has to be the case thanks to FireChat, a free messaging app for iPhone that takes advantage of the Multipeer Connectivity framework introduced with iOS 7. This service allows nearby devices to discover and communicate with each other using peer-to-peer Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, even in areas where an Internet connection is unavailable.
To test this theory, we installed FireChat on an iPhone 5s and iPad Air (which is compatible, but not in full-screen). After disabling cellular connectivity and forgetting our local Wi-Fi connection, we launched the app and entered a username on both. The devices instantly recognized each other, and we were able to chat and even send photos back and forth.
Although FireChat could be considered a poster child for minimalism, its feature set is entirely too basic compared to most mobile chat apps. Everything happens within two tabs: Everyone, a noisy shotgun blast of exchanges going on around the globe, and Nearby, where conversations are private between one or more devices within a 30-foot range (there’s also no limit to the number of users in a group chat). There are also settings for changing the username or toggling off push notifications for Nearby messages, plus a variety of options to share conversations with others. On the plus side, no traditional login or password is needed, and FireChat keeps the conversation going even while seamlessly moving off or onto the grid.
FireChat feels like sorcery the first time you use it, but the gimmick soon wears off. New messages and notifications lack sound, so it’s easy to miss important missives. The app also prompted a random crash of the iPhone 5s used for the review—the first we’ve seen since installing iOS 7.1.
The bottom line. FireChat works as advertised, but out of the gate, the app is more proof of concept rather than a truly useful communication tool.
iPhone or iPod touch running iOS 7.0 or later
Internet-free, peer-to-peer chat between iOS devices. Unlimited groups within 30-foot range. No login or password required. Minimal impact to battery life.
Limited feature set. No native iPad support. Lacks sound for incoming messages. Slow transfer times for photos.