Katherine Boehret

Rating the New Instant-Messaging Programs

Since it was popularized by America Online in the 1990s, instant messaging has changed the way people communicate. In the office, IM lets colleagues chat with faster responses and fewer formalities than phone conversations or email. Casual users can keep tabs on one another’s lives. Friends who haven’t spoken in years easily strike up IM conversations. IM even introduced us to a new language of acronyms like BRB (be right back), TTYL (talk to you later) and LOL (laughing out loud).

But over time, instant messaging didn’t really change. Some newer versions of IM programs actually got worse, mucking up screens with too many advertisements and an overload of irrelevant content that diminished the real purpose of instant messaging: communicating.

AOL's AIM 6.0 uses tabs to organize multiple IM conversations.
AOL’s AIM 6.0 uses tabs to organize multiple IM conversations.

Thankfully, within the past few months, instant messaging has woken up. The three big kahunas of the IM world — AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft — have each released new, much-improved versions of their free programs.

This week, I tested AIM 6.0 (AOL Instant Messaging) www.aim.com, Yahoo Messenger 8.1 www.messenger.yahoo.com and Windows Live Messenger 8.1 http://messenger.live.com to judge the usability of new features. Sharing digital files, especially photos, is now a cinch using any of these programs and making calls using your computer is simple, too. Video chatting can be done with help from a Webcam.

In the end, AOL came out on top. It offers tabbed messaging, a neat way to organize numerous conversations into one window; and “notifications” or brief summaries of messages that appear on-screen when the chat window isn’t opened. Neither AOL nor Microsoft restricts the size of photos or files that you can share; Yahoo does. And I had a hard time getting video chatting to work with Yahoo Messenger.

Photo sharing is now made simple with instant messaging. Windows Live Messenger 8.1.
Photo sharing is now made simple with instant messaging. Windows Live Messenger 8.1.

Of course, competitors abound. These include Apple Inc.’s iChat, which comes preloaded on Macs and works with a .Mac or AIM account, and Google Inc.’s Google Talk, which is rudimentary compared with the leaders. If you’re interested in a specific type of instant messaging, Skype Limited and SightSpeed Inc. offer IM programs that specialize in phone and video capabilities, respectively, though they both allow text messaging as well. And products like Meebo and Trillian let you log into numerous IM accounts simultaneously.

AIM 6.0 simplifies everything, starting with the way your buddy list looks. At the top, below an advertisement (all three programs have ads) is a search box for finding buddies. Your screen name appears below this, along with a drop-down Set Away menu that lets you quickly display an away message instead of digging through menus to do so. Three boxes below your buddy list let you send IMs, set up your buddy list or decide how you want to communicate with a buddy. Four discreet, round icons below these boxes direct you to phone options, as well as links to AOL’s radio and video offerings.

AIM’s best feature gets going when you start chatting with more than one buddy at the same time. The left side of your chat window automatically turns into a list of tabs with buddy screen names in order of who messaged you first. If someone sends you an IM while you’re chatting with someone else, a green exclamation point appears beside the sender’s screen name. To swap from one buddy to the next, select a screen name on the left-hand side and type away.

Yahoo Messenger 8.1
Yahoo Messenger 8.1

The old method of IMing, still used by Yahoo Messenger and Windows Live Messenger, involves opening a different window for every conversation that you start. If you really miss this while using AIM, you can ungroup conversations from the tabbed window. But I found that tabbed IMs were an easier way to converse with multiple friends at once while also keeping my desktop tidy.

If you’re logged into AIM while working in another program, say writing in a Word document, and someone sends you an instant message, at least part of the message pops up from the bottom right corner of the screen — even if it’s not the first time he or she IMed you since you logged on. These notifications can be turned off if you don’t want to be distracted. But the notices were helpful when I might otherwise have missed an incoming IM. Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo Messenger don’t offer these pop-up message summaries.

All three IM programs offer smart, quick methods for sharing photos and other kinds of files. They all allow instant photo sharing by opening a photo-viewing screen that runs either in or alongside your IM conversation. Photos can be dragged and dropped into these screens to instantly share with others. I tried this using all three programs and was impressed, even with large photo files. In Windows Live Messenger, certain photo-sharing tasks can crash some PCs using the new Windows Vista operating system. A fix is in the works.

AOL and Yahoo show a mini view of which photo your buddy is looking at and vice versa, while Windows Live Messenger lets one person control which photo you both see. All three options enhance your interactive experience. AOL and Windows Live Mail let you view photos in a slide show format, a handsome touch.

Yahoo puts a limit on how many photos you can send per share (300) and the size of other shared files per share (one gigabyte). These are high limits but limits nonetheless, while the other two programs have no limit on the number of photos or sizes of files that you share.

Video messaging works when both parties have Webcams attached to their computers. Instead of, or in addition to, sending a text-only instant message, one user initiates a video chat and the other accepts the invitation, allowing each person to see the other in a small window on his or her screen. Both parties can also speak to one another.

The quality and smoothness of video and audio highly depend on both parties’ Internet connections. In my tests, none of these were exceptionally good, but I was able to conduct passable video chats using AIM and Windows Live Messenger. In Yahoo video chats on two different computers, the audio didn’t work and I wasn’t able to see my chat buddy — only video of myself.

AIM 6.0
AIM 6.0

The Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo Messenger buddy list views are just plain busier than AIM. In Live Messenger, 17 different icons vertically line the list’s left side, including icons for Xbox, eBay Inc., Match.com and MSN dating. These can be turned off if you dig into settings, but appear by default. At the bottom of this buddy list, ads are mixed in with plugs for Microsoft videos and music content.

Also by default, Yahoo Messenger’s buddy list shows plug-ins, or links to Web applications, for three of Yahoo’s programs. These are easier to hide than the Windows Live Messenger icons, but are annoying nonetheless.

Each IM program lets you make free PC-to-PC phone calls, and doing so took only a few seconds. Outgoing calls can be made from your PC to a phone (cellphone or land-line) for a fee using any of the three programs, while incoming calls can only be received on AIM and Yahoo, not Windows Live Messenger. You can also send instant messages to cellphones; I did this easily by entering a friend’s mobile number and typing a message. My friend was notified of the incoming message on his phone.

All three of these programs make it easier to share photos and large files and initiate phone conversations using instant messaging. AIM 6.0 offered the best overall experience by creating ways to make the regular chatting experience smarter, while Yahoo Messenger had hiccups with sharing limitations and sketchy video chatting.

–Edited by Walter S. Mossberg


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