WhatsApp has been prepping support for multiple devices for months now — even longer if you consider its semi-functional existing web and desktop implementation as an intrinsic part of the process. The feature started to go live for some users a few days ago, and appears to be spreading widely now. Most beta app users should have it now, and it is making its way to non-beta users too. It's trivial to set up and, although most functionality is retained, it's still a little disappointing.
What's this new multi-device feature?
If you've installed WhatsApp on your phone, you're probably aware that you can't sign in with the same account on other devices. To (partially) remedy this, WhatsApp added web then native desktop support, but your phone remained the first and indispensable point of contact. It had to be turned on and connected so you could receive and send messages from your computers.
With the new method, WhatsApp is removing this annoying requirement, allowing you to use the service on your computers even when your phone's battery is dead or when it doesn't have a signal.
Only one phone + four companions
There are two very crucial restrictions to the new multi-device protocol. First, there's no support for more than one phone at this point, i.e. if you thought this would allow you to run the same WhatsApp account on two smartphones (or a tablet with a native app, not web client), you're out of luck.
Second, only four companion devices can be linked at any point, and the phone has to remain the main purveyor of access. If it doesn't have a connection for 14 days, all linked devices are logged off automatically. The four-device limit should be enough to log in a home computer, work computer, laptop, and tablet (using the web client), so it's not all that bad.
Joining the beta
If you're interested in trying out this new feature, there are two levels of beta you have to be part of. First, the option as a whole is currently rolling out to those who are using the beta version of WhatsApp. To do that, you can either enroll on the Play Store or manually grab the latest v126.96.36.199 beta from APM Mirror. Those who prefer to stick to stable releases might have to wait a bit longer for the test to reach their devices.
After making sure you're running this version, you can tap the overflow ⋮ button on the top right of the app then Linked devices. This is where you usually have your web and desktop clients, but a new section should show up: Multi-device beta. For now, this is an opt-in feature, meaning you have to manually enable it. WhatsApp clearly explains its benefits and limitations and provides a link to an excellent support page to help you in your decision, but you can leave and rejoin the beta at any point if you want to suss out the situation without committing to it.
Once you've joined the beta, all of your existing logged in sessions will be removed and you'll be signed out of them, so you better keep your phone nearby if you want to activate WhatsApp again on your devices. Linking a new web or desktop client is done in the same manner as before: you authenticate with your fingerprint then scan a QR code.
The interface on your computer remains virtually identical, but you'll notice that the welcome graphic is changed from the old Keep your phone connected to a new WhatsApp for Desktop beta.
Left: Old desktop welcome screen. Right: New one with multi-device enabled.
The experience is also unchanged: all shortcuts, settings, screens, and most of the features are there, so you won't have to get used to anything new. Even things like using the colon (:) to find and send emojis or double clicking next to a message to reply to it are there. You can also send disappearing messages, and place calls on the Mac and Windows clients (not web, this was always a limitation and it hasn't been lifted). Overall, I didn't notice any major bugs after switching to the new protocol, but there are some missing features that I'll address in a bit.
... but different
The main benefit of going through this is to become independent from your phone. In short: no phone, no problem. Whether its battery is dead or you left it at home or you have a terrible signal on it, it doesn't matter. As long as your computer is able to connect to the internet, you have access to your WhatsApp chats and calls. I tried this several times, disconnected my phone before and mid-chat/call and everything went smoothly with the WhatsApp client on my iMac.
Carrying out a call from my iMac while my phone was disconnected was no problem.
One of the most important features of WhatsApp is its end-to-end encryption, and you'll be glad to know it is retained through the linking process and during your use of the desktop and web apps. WhatsApp explains how the former happens here — essentially, it sends an encrypted version of your most recent chat history to your computer when you link it, then deletes it once it's been received. And when you're using the desktop app, you can enable security notifications just like on your phone to be notified when a contact's code changes and make sure everything remains private.
Missing features and known issues
Since this is still a beta, some features aren't yet supported. Here are the most important ones I noticed:
- Pinning chats isn't available, and your pinned chats don't carry through. So if you're used to your partner or close friends being on top of your chats, you'll have to adapt. Hopefully, this'll be remedied soon.
Of all the complex features, it's this seemingly simple one that's missing.
- Since only your most recent chat history is sent over to your computer, and since your phone is no longer the supplier of data, you will lose access to older starred messages. Your searches will also only yield recent results, so you have to go back to your phone to look for anything old.
Left: Starred messages before. Right: With multi-device enabled, nothing is visible.
- Viewing the live location of a contact isn't supported.
- You can't call another person who's using the older protocol for linked devices (i.e. who hasn't enrolled in the beta) from your computer. You'll have to move to your phone to do that.
WhatsApp has a slightly longer list of issues on this support page, but the rest of the items are more minor or more specific, so you're unlikely to run into them. It's worth noting that joining and viewing group invites appears in the official list, but I didn't have an issue with that. I was able to view an invite to a group I'm not part of and join it without a hitch, so this may already be resolved.
After all the wait, I'm personally a little disappointed with the way things turned out. Sure, the feature works and there are no major bugs for a "beta" release, but one of the main reasons I've wanted multi-device support on WhatsApp is so I could have the app on a second phone without signing out of my main one. I'd also rather have access to all of my history for searches and starred messages, even if that is only available when the main phone is connected.
As it stands, multi-device support is a convenient improvement to the WhatsApp desktop and web experience, but it's not the game-changer we've all wanted it to be.