Allo is Google's latest attempt at a messaging app that competes with the likes of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, both of which boast a userbase of over a billion users. The main differentiator for Allo is Google Assistant, a chatbot that provides answers to your queries by drawing on the search giant's machine learning smarts. AI is at the core of Google's strategy, with Assistant available on hundreds of millions of phones as well as the Google Home and Android TV.

These are the top Allo features you need to know. If you're just installing the app, be sure to check out our setup guide.

Your replies are now smarter

When you're chatting with your friends and family, Google Assistant offers a series of responses based on the context of the conversation. If you're sharing a picture of your cat, for instance, your friends will see options to reply with "Cute!", "Adorable!", "How fun!", and so on. For images that contain food, you'll see suggestions for nearby restaurants.

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Allo smart suggestions

That's the good part. The not-so-great bit is where most canned responses are generic right now. I had an entire conversation with my colleague Russell Holly without typing a single word. That said, most of it went down like this (exclamation points courtesy of Google):

Allo chats

Google Assistant learns your messaging patterns over time, and it should hopefully offer more personalized suggestions.

When in doubt, emoji

When you don't want to type, you can use Allo's diverse set of emojis to get your message across. There's an emoji for most emotions (which should say a lot, really), occasions, pets, and social activities, so you're very well catered to in this regard.

Allo all the emoji

Make Duo calls from within Allo

Duo calls within Allo

Allo is a text-only platform, but if you're interested in making video calls, you can now start a Duo call from within the messaging app. You'll see the icon for Duo in the conversation window, allowing you to jump into a video call without having to launch Duo.

Scribble away

You can jazz up images you're sharing with friends by doodling on them, or adding text.

Allo scribble doodle

Emphasize your point with text

Allo has a nifty trick that lets you make your text larger or smaller. To achieve this effect, you have to press and hold the send button, and slide it up to enlarge text, and slide down to shrink it.

Allo text

Use stickers for everything else

Google has worked with "independent artists and studios around the world" to launch 25 sticker packs for Allo. Messaging app Line pioneered the use of stickers in chats, and ever since most messaging platforms have gotten into the act.

Allo stickers

Also, for some reason that I can't really fathom, a lot of the sticker packs are aimed at an Indian audience. There's even one about a "little Indian girl who loves her country and relishes any occasion to be patriotic." No clue what's going on there, but for the most part, stickers on Allo are just like on any other platform. Some will use it, but most users won't care.

Allo stickers India

Create your own stickers with selfies

Allo selfie stickers

Allo now lets you create a custom sticker set using your own selfies. All you have to do is take a selfie, and Google leverages its machine learning skills to "analyze the pixels of an image and algorithmically determine attribute values by looking at pixel values for for color, shape, and texture" to build a sticker pack that's based on your image.

The messaging app creates 22 stickers based on your likeness, but the downside is that you'll only be able to use the stickers within Allo.

Go incognito

Allo offers an Incognito Mode that doesn't store a record of your conversation. You can set a timer specifying the duration of the chat, following which it will be automatically deleted. All ephemeral chats are overlaid with a grey incognito icon.

Allo incognito mode

Ask Google Assistant anything

If you're feeling bored, Google Assistant offers a variety of ways to pass the time. You can have a conversation with the chatbot wherein you can ask it to tell jokes, recite poems, play games, serve up news headlines, sports scores, and much more. You can invoke the assistant directly from within a chat window by typing @google.

Allo Google Assistant

And yes, you can have an emoji party with the chatbot.

Allo emoji fun

Restore your chats

Allo restore chat

Allo initially didn't have the option to save your chats across devices, but that feature is now available. You can set Allo to automatically create a backup of your chat history, and you'll be able to sync chats to a new device when setting up Allo again.

Room to grow

For all of its features, Allo can't be used as the default SMS client on your phone. It uses an SMS relay to communicate with contacts that don't have the service installed, but it won't be taking over Android Messages.

What do you guys think of Allo? Do you regularly use the messaging service? Let us know in the comments.

Updated July 2017 with sections on Duo calls, ability to restore chats, and selfie stickers.