This week’s how to was inspired by a recent conversation I had with my family. My mom got an iPad, and she wanted to use it to keep in touch with the rest of her family, who all use iOS devices in some capacity. My dad set her up with a free texting app, but I wondered why not use iMessage? He didn’t even know what that was. It seems as if casual users are not entirely aware of what iMessage is and what it can do.

iMessages are messages similar to SMS that are sent through the Messages app on iOS 5 and later. They can be sent over wifi or a user’s data plan, instead of using up a messaging plan. iMessages can be sent to a person’s email address that they have registered with iMessage. iPhone users can register their phone number to receive iMessages, and the app can send out both traditional SMS messages and iMessages. SMS messages are represented by green bubbles, iMessage are blue bubbles.

iMessage makes it easy to to send photos and videos to friends. Also, there’s no character limit for iMessages, which is a blessing and a curse. iMessages carry across devices, so a conversation can be started on iPhone andreplied to on iPad and even on Macs with Mountain Lion. Messages can be sent while on wifi, if mobile data is unavailable on the iPhone.

To ensure iMessage is working, go to Settings, Messages, and ensure that it’s turned on. From this menu, it’s possible to enable different email addresses to receive iMessages at, and the default ID from which they will appear.

Don’t know if someone is an iMessage user? Create a new message, start typing in their phone number or email address, and the device will look up to see if they’re registered. Their name bubble will first be gray with a spinning circle. It turns blue if the user is registered, and red with an exclamation point if their email address is not registered.

A handy tip that many users don’t know about is to resend an iMessage as an SMS. Just tap and hold on the message bubble until a dialog to “Resend as SMS” appears. This is handy if the person being messaged is out of data range, or uses an Android phone along with their iPad or iPod touch. If iMessage becomes too complicated to use, it can also be disabled by turning it off from the iMessage settings menu. However, it’s worth leaving enabled for the benefits it provides.