Reviews October 2006 • Vol. 17 Issue 10 Page(s) 20-22 in print issue cu on im instant Messaging Clients

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Reviews October 2006 • Vol.17 Issue 10
Page(s) 20-22 in print issue

Instant Messaging Clients

Instant messaging is nothing new. Real-time online communication has taken place for at least 10 years. During that time, the technology has matured and gained credibility with the wired public, which explains why the Radicati Group forecasts the number of worldwide IM accounts to increase from 944 million this year to 1.4 billion by 2010.

Users have several options when it comes to choosing an IM client. The most popular are developed by the major online players: AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!. These companies have the resources to create cutting-edge IM programs. More importantly, they have large audiences. That’s vitally important to the success of an IM client because the industry has not adopted a common instant messaging protocol. As a result, users of Yahoo! Messenger cannot chat with users of AIM Triton and users of Windows Live Messenger cannot chat with users of ICQ. Such incompatibility is a hurdle that needs to be overcome.

(Several of the following products were available in beta at press time. Final release editions may be available by the time you read this.)

Yahoo! Messenger 8 (beta)

Yahoo! Messenger proves that instant messaging is more than high-tech note passing. Users can swap content files, drag digital photos into their discussions, share favorite tunes with fellow conversationalists, videoconference for virtual face-to-face meetings, make free PC-to-PC voice calls to other Yahoo! Messenger users, and even make PC-to-phone calls to anywhere in the world at rates as low as a penny a minute.

We liked Yahoo! Messenger. It downloads and installs easily, has a friendly (if somewhat overloaded) interface, and automatically scanned our Microsoft Outlook address book to identify other Yahoo! Messenger users. We liked that it referred to our Yahoo! account preferences when establishing itself so that it could provide ready access to Yahoo! Address Book, Yahoo! Mail, and other Yahoo! features we used frequently. And the best thing about Yahoo! Messenger is that it will soon prove operable with the MSN Messenger network, which accounts for more than 60% of all IM users worldwide. An agreement between Microsoft and Yahoo! ensured that these two companies will continue to handle the lion’s share of IM well into the future.

Our only real complaint is that technical assistance is limited to online support. Users cannot call for help if they need it. But then that’s par for the course with freeware of any kind.

AIM Triton 1.5 (beta)

The latest version of AOL’s ever-popular AIM boasts all of the expected IM capabilities, including videoconferencing, integrated Web-based email, a built-in radio, and a universal address book that synchronizes with Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express. It provides quick access to online gaming, AIM Pages (MySpace-like online profiles), on-demand video content, and PC-to-phone telephony. Indeed, the AIM Phoneline component not only provides users with low-cost PC-to-phone calling, but it also includes a personal phone number for free unlimited incoming calls.

Unfortunately, none of these marvelous features could compensate for the horrible experience we had trying to use Triton. The download went well, and the installation proceeded smoothly. Then we tried to log in to the service. Actually, we tried logging in a dozen times, but each time, AIM refused to validate us. Worse yet, it gave no reason for the refusal. The online FAQs and help files did not address our issue, and AOL provides no option for interactive support. The problem resolved itself two days later when we received a message from AOL asking us to verify that we had created a particular screen name. We understand the need for identify verification and tight security, but a two-day wait to get IM seems inexcusable when competing clients can be up and running within minutes under identical circumstances.

To be fair, Triton functioned just fine once we got it going. We liked the AIM Gadgets, which are plug-ins for adding extra IM capabilities such as message logs (EZLogger) and message broadcasting (Broadcaster). We also appreciated Triton’s nearly universal support for mobile devices. Nevertheless, despite a charming interface and the promise of new add-ons in the future (including a locator feature that maps the locations of a user’s nearest IM buddies), we could not forget our inauspicious introduction. Unless a user is already an AOL subscriber, we recommend looking elsewhere for IM service.

Google Talk (beta)

Google is just getting started in the realm of instant messaging. Consequently, the company’s IM client foregoes many of the whiz-bang features associated with its more established competitors. Google Talk lacks support for videoconferencing and Internet radio, for instance. The client sticks to the basics of text messaging and PC-to-PC calls. That’s one downside. Another negative in our opinion is that users must build their contacts list manually, one name at a time. In all fairness, most of the IM clients in this roundup build their contact lists in this manner. We wish they didn’t.

On the plus side, Google Talk installs quickly and easily. The intuitively designed interface is free of clutter and—better yet—ads. That’s good. Because Google Talk is built on an open-source protocol, it’s compatible with other third-party IM clients such as GAIM and Apple’s iChat. Of course, that might not matter much if a user’s friends all rely on Yahoo! Messenger or Windows Live Messenger.

ICQ 5.1

The granddaddy of all IM clients, ICQ has built a dedicated global fan base since its introduction 10 years ago. The latest version carries on the tradition by installing easily and sporting popular IM extras such as PC-to-phone calling, fun emoticons, and multiuser chatting. It has an international user base (the client is available in 18 languages) and puts a heavy emphasis on entertainment, with a colorful interface, one-click access to online games and matchmaking services, and personal avatars playfully referred to as “devils.” Best of all, ICQ is owned by AOL and is thereby compatible with the AIM network.

Minor oddities kept us from fully enjoying our experience with ICQ, however. The unusually colorful interface is adorned with numerous icons and pop-out panels that distract attention from the chat window. We also were annoyed that the IM client was set by default to Always On Top so that it covered a portion of any maximized document or window that was also open on-screen. We disabled this option with minimal fuss, but it seemed a bit presumptuous to assume we would consider ICQ the most important program on our Desktop at all times.

Trillian 3.1

Trillian is an IM aggregator, functioning as a single interface from which users communicate with various IM networks, including AIM, ICQ, IRC, MSN, and Yahoo!. Users simply create a unique connection for each network they want to use. In a realm of competing standards, Trillian represents the perfect option, right?

Almost. The process of setting up a new connection, although not difficult, does require a certain degree of technical competence. And while Trillian’s ad-free interface and ability to maintain separate contact lists are impressive, users must be willing to forego some advanced functionality, most notably videoconferencing. For these reasons, Trillian perhaps makes sense for users who need to share text messages with groups of users on multiple networks. Users who want to take advantage of cutting-edge IM capabilities, on the other hand, should choose a particular network and stick with it.

Windows Live Messenger

With more than 60% of the global IM market using Microsoft software, the Redmond, Wash.,-based company has once again shown it can be the best in any technology arena it chooses to enter. And it shows once again that it can do so by building a great product.

Our primary gripe about Windows Live Messenger (formerly known as MSN Messenger) is that we had to build our contacts database one name at a time. This surprised us; a Microsoft IM client should have imported our contacts from Microsoft address books automatically. Another minor complaint involves the interface, which is easy to navigate but very busy as it comes fully equipped with a Web search box, streaming ad content, a pop-out display featuring the latest news and incoming email, and shortcuts for various online content such as personal ads, stock quotes, an eBay search field, and on-demand video.

Otherwise, Windows Live Messenger is all good. It supports videoconferencing and file sharing, provides one-click access to Spaces, and features PC-to-PC and PC-to-phone calling. It has every IM innovation a user could want, including customizable sounds and the ability to display current track selections in Windows Media Player. As a Microsoft product, the IM client also merges seamlessly into Windows and is fully compatible with Internet Explorer. Users also can expect Windows Live Messenger to prove compatible with the upcoming Windows Live Mail client currently in beta testing.

The aforementioned agreement between Microsoft and Yahoo! will allow the companies’ IM clients to communicate with each other. We only wish all IM developers would pursue similar compatibility agreements.

Among Friends

With the possible exception of AIM Triton, any IM client in this roundup can provide a reliable interface from which to share instant messages with others. The best IM client, however, is the one used by the most people in a user’s circle of relatives, friends, and colleagues. With that in mind, we chose Yahoo! Messenger to receive our Smart Choice designation this month. The program has impressive features. But more importantly—and thanks to its landbreaking agreement with Microsoft—it has a network that reaches most IM users. For that, we give it the highest marks.

by Jeff Dodd

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