Facebook has launched a public beta of its much anticipated IM chat feature across a few ‘select’ networks, with a larger roll-out expected in the coming weeks.

As expected, the new chat feature is neatly embedded into a standard user’s profile page, meaning there’s no need for logged-in users to download or open a separate application or browser window.

Friends online

Residing on the bottom of the page, the new ‘chat bar’ will automatically display the number of friends you have online. When a friend sends a message, their name is given a tab on the bar with a red bubble highlighting their incoming message.

You can then click on your name in the bar to launch an unobtrusive chat window that can be minimised in one click.

If you have lots of simultaneous conversations going on, then the chat bar can be expanded to a chat window. It’s also possible to recover accidentally closed messages and to manage your recent chat history.

Thankfully, the new chat feature will only be open between friends, so unsolicited messages from random users won’t be an issue. Likewise, female users with an attractive profile pic won’t find themselves subjected to any undignified spamathons either.

Shot in the arm for Facebook?

While there’s no doubt that the new chat feature could prove useful, we’re in two minds about what it says about the overall health of Facebook.

One the one hand useful features like this are precisely what the social networking site needs – infinitely more so than countless ‘hot or not?’ and ‘poo fight’ apps. On that score we’re actually surprised that it’s taken Facebook so long to develop a chat app.

However, on the other hand we’re also inclined to suspect that this could be a somewhat cynical attempt to entice users into keeping their Facebook window constantly open while they work or study, rather than just ‘check in’ now and again.

Either way, with a deceleration in the number of new users joining up, and the often heard claim that people ‘check in’ less regularly than they did when they first joined, there’s every reason to believe the new chat feature will be a timely shot in the arm for the service.

TechRadar did contact Facebook’s UK PR company to ask them how long before the feature is available to the UK, but they appeared to have no more idea than a big dog and were about as helpful as a paper mache hat in the rain. Soon we reckon though.