A Veteran User's Guide to AOL 5.0

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The Fear grips me each time I send out an e-mail from my personal account. I feel society's cold, judging glares each time I click the send button. I hear the cruel sniggering from my co-workers whenever my back is turned. I worry that no matter how cogent my e-mail, how prompt my response, how reserved my use of emoticons, people will look at my domain name -- @aol.com -- and conclude that I'm something of an imbecile.

"He uses America Online!" people will sneer. "How quaint . How common. How very 20th century. What kind of rube still uses AOL in this day and age?"

A rube who doesn't like hassles, that's who. Say what you will about AOL -- and the tech cognoscenti react to the online service the way gourmets would if you tried to serve them a Big Mac -- but it offers easy and extensive access to e-mail, chat rooms and other online goodies. Sneer if you will; some of us happen to like Big Macs.

I cast my lot with AOL back in 1994 because it promised a hassle-free route onto the Internet for me and my meager little PowerBook 145B. And for the most part, it's delivered. That's why, even as I've become more tech savvy, I've stuck with the service... that and because I'm too lazy to take my business elsewhere.

Don't expect that line to appear in AOL's next ad slogan, by the way.

Those two aspects -- convenience and a tendency to make things painfully simple for sluggards like myself -- are in full effect for the latest Mac version of AOL's software. With a redesigned Welcome screen, AOL 5.0 offers quicker access to online services and added customization. Users looking for a major face-lift or a litany of extra features may be disappointed -- none of the additions to 5.0 will redefine the way you use AOL. Instead, the upgrade is really about adding features already available in AOL's Windows version.

For instance, My Calendar lets AOL subscribers track appointments and personal events with a customizable online planner. With You've Got Pictures, AOL members can drop off film to be developed at participating Eastman Kodak retailers. Prints are then delivered online, making it easier to share photos with family and friends. The My Places feature allows users to pick which links appear on their Welcome Screen, helping them to more easily navigate through AOL's prefabricated online world.

Other enhancements also play off the idea of easier navigation. AOL now integrates its 18-category Channel Guide with the Welcome screen. A refined search feature lets users simultaneously search AOL content and the rest of the Web from one place -- keeping members from leaving the online service for other search engines, AOL hopes. You can also switch between screen names without redialing and retrieve recently deleted e-mail, two convenience features already available in AOL's Windows software.

The upgrade isn't just a Mac'ed-up version of an existing Windows program, though. AOL has added features that it says takes advantage of unique aspects of the Mac OS. The Mac-specific features aren't exactly earth-shattering, but they are nice additions to AOL.

With AOL 5.0, you can view GIF files embedded in e-mails sent by other Mac users. You can also play embedded sounds in e-mails sent by other Mac users and have text read aloud using customizable speech synthesis. Files can now be attached to e-mail with drag-and-drop simplicity, and you can resize or collapse the address field on incoming e-mail to enjoy a larger view of the message itself.

One feature that didn't make its way into AOL 5.0 for the Mac is the Internet software included in the Windows version. Some users allege that software alters existing files and settings, making it difficult to use rival Internet service providers. The claims, which AOL denies, are part of a class-action suit against the company. It's not the legal dispute that kept that feature out of the Mac version, though. The Internet software is just a feature specific to the Windows operating system.

The Mac upgrades comes at an interesting time for AOL. Though nearly 10 percent of AOL's 21 million subscribers are Mac users, the online service giant faces stiffer competition for the hearts and minds of Mac users from EarthLink. This past January, EarthLink inked a deal with Apple that makes it the exclusive ISP in the Internet setup software that comes with every Mac sold in the U.S.

Will AOL 5.0 help America Online hold onto its share of the Mac market? Sophisticated Mac users -- the folks who get into knock-down drag-outs debating the merits of HFS versus HFS+ -- will continue to scoff at AOL's interface, its features, its simplicity. But it's that same simplicity that makes AOL an appealing option for going online. These are folks who just want to install the software, hook up the modem and not have to worry about anything else.

Not that I would know anybody like that.

Associate Editor PHILIP MICHAELS ( pmichaels@macworld.com ) covers systems issues and the news beat for Macworld magazine.

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