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With e-mail systems overloaded by spam, always-on Internet connections on PDAs and cell phones becoming the norm, and superfast communication in vogue, your instant-messaging (IM) application may be as important—and as personal—as your e-mail software. It’s easy to think that all IM programs are the same, but depending on how you want to talk—and with whom—there are some differences. I evaluated the four major chat applications for the Mac: America Online’s AOL Instant Messenger 4.7 (AIM), Apple’s iChat AV 2.1, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger 4.0.1, and Yahoo’s Yahoo Messenger 2.5.3. And Ifound that iChat AV 2.1 can really do it all for most Mac users—as long as they have a $100 .Mac or free AIM account.

AOL Instant Messenger 4.7

Years ago, America Online was the first to provide easy-to-use Internet chat, with its popular chat rooms. And the company’s instant-messaging platform, AIM, remains the most widely used service and the de facto standard. The software is nearly ubiquitous on new computers, cell phones, and PDAs. Walk into any Internet café in the world, and AIM will probably be the chat program you’ll find. Every AOL subscriber has an account; if you’re not a subscriber, you can sign up for a free screen name that you can use with the AIM software.

AIM is much more customizable than MSN Messenger or Yahoo Messenger. You can create custom buddy icons and backgrounds, and choose fonts for a personalized look-and-feel. Setting custom status messages to let your friends know that you’re out to lunch or occupied with the Super Bowl is quite easy. You can organize your buddies into groups (for example, coworkers, friends, and clients) simply by dragging and dropping names, and the AIM service will remember your preferences no matter where you log on.

I transferred files to and from other AIM users, on both Macs and PCs, and the transfers went smoothly overall. It’s also easy to set up a multiuser chat with AIM, and a list of available chat rooms is accessible from the menu bar. Starting a Short Message Service (SMS) chat with a cell-phone user is as easy as entering the plus sign and then the user’s phone number.

But AIM has its drawbacks. Although AIM 5.5 for Windows lets Windows users set up video chats, the Mac version still limits users to text-only messaging. The scrolling news and stock tickers are a nuisance (fortunately, they can be turned off). And although AOL gave AIM a nice Aqua makeover, the effect is negated by the unattractive animated advertisements embedded in buddy lists. Overall, AIM is a good application with a vast network of users, but it wasn’t the best program of the four I looked at.

iChat AV 2.1

Apple’s iChat AV picks up where AIM leaves off, offering an even greater degree of customization, as well as unmatched audio and video capabilities. It takes advantage of the AIM protocol to give Mac users access to everyone on that system and to people on the .Mac network.

I continue to be amazed at all the ways I can customize iChat AV. I can use my iSight Web cam to take a snapshot of myself for a custom buddy icon; I’ve set up special audio alerts that tell me when a specific friend, family member, or coworker signs on; and I regularly set custom status messages, a task that is, by far, easiest to do in iChat. (iChat AVeven lets you use Apple Speech to announce new messages from particular contacts.)

iChat users will also benefit from the program’s OS X integration. Because iChat AV is tied into Apple’s Mail and Address Book, all your Address Book contacts are accessible within iChat, and you can tell when your iChat buddies are logged on when you’re working in Mail or Address Book. iChat AV’s real-time spelling checker keeps typos at bay, and Rendezvous support lets you send messages to other users on your local network without connecting to the wider Internet. File transfers are a breeze; you can send files by dragging a file and dropping it on a contact’s name in your buddy list or on a message field.

Thanks to iChat AV, videoconferencing has gone mainstream, and it’s surprising that the other IM programs haven’t caught on yet. Inviting another user to talk via audio or video is as easy as clicking on the camera icon (or the speaker icon for an audio chat) next to his or her screen name. iChat’s Connection Doctor utility scans both parties’ machines and Internet connections to deliver the best picture and sound without overloading either system. What’s more, you can even use it to video chat with Windows XP users running AIM 5.5 or later, and to audio chat with Windows users running Cerulean Studios’ Trillian, a Windows-only application that allows you to be logged on to multiple services using the same chat client.

iChat AV does have a few downsides. The sound on both video and audio chats can be iffy, with some random noise, though not enough to seriously affect the quality of the chat. Audio and video chats could have more flexibility in terms of who can connect. For example, I might have a Web cam stashed in my laptop bag, but if I don’t have it connected, I can see only another user’s text or audio capabilities, even if he or she has a Web cam set up. It would be nice to see all of another user’s capabilities, no matter what my current status was. Likewise, I’d prefer to be able to set up a one-way video chat if I’m the only chatter with a Web cam. Opening the door to other protocols, such as MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, and even the open-source Jabber—as Fire, Proteus, and Adium X do (see “All You Can Chat”)—would greatly enhance iChat. Furthermore, iChat AV is the only IM software for the Mac that doesn’t have an integrated function that forwards messages to your cell phone or another mobile device. I’d also like to be able to video chat with multiple parties, but Apple has already demonstrated this as a feature of the next version of iChat AV, for Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger), scheduled for arrival in mid-2005.

MSN Messenger 4.0.1

Of the major chat services, MSN Messenger is the most bare-bones, offering text chat only, although it does have a few advanced features. Like AIM, MSN Messenger has the advantage of being tied to a large network of users. Multiuser chats are easy to establish. Since it’s integrated with the MSN Network, it will notify you when a new Hotmail message arrives. I didn’t have any problems with file transfers, and adding and removing contacts was relatively painless.

I say “relatively” because all of your contacts must be tied to MSN Messenger, and you have to search for existing users to add one, rather than merely entering a contact’s screen name as you do in iChat AV and AIM. New users must sign up for a Microsoft .Net Passport account if they don’t already have one. And like America Online, Microsoft tries to recoup a few bucks by placing annoying, and potentially offensive, animated ads in your contact list. For example, my contact list showed an iconic image of the bleeding Christ from the movie The Passion of the Christ next to a prompt to “Find ‘Ashlee Simpson’ on MSN Search.” Of all the major chat programs, MSN Messenger is the weakest in terms of customization. For example, buddy icons are generic. Users who want to chat with people who have MSN Messenger accounts would do better to use Epicware’s Fire or Adam Iser’s Adium X (see “All You Can Chat”). Microsoft has announced that MSN Messenger 5.0, which aims for greater customization, will be released in mid-2005.

Yahoo Messenger 2.5.3

Yahoo Messenger is nearly a great messaging application. It’s easy to install and use, and it has a pleasant interface. Adding and removing new contacts is a breeze. Custom status messages are easy to set up. Buttons along the bottom of your contact list let you jump to news, stock, sports, and weather information. Like MSN Messenger and Hotmail, Yahoo Messenger is tightly integrated with the Yahoo Mail service and network, and it will alert you when you have a new e-mail message.

Yahoo Messenger also has a Web-cam option, but it doesn’t hold a candle to iChat AV’s. For starters, there’s no sound with video chats: users communicate by sending text messages. Second, video chats are one-way—so I can see you, but you can’t see me (or vice versa). Finally, although you can customize video settings, the program doesn’t automatically adjust audio and video throughput (as iChat AV does), and even at the highest-quality setting, video was jumpy. On the positive side, though, setting up Yahoo Messenger for use with my iSight was easy.

The larger problem with Yahoo Messenger is that the company seems to have written off Mac users. The software hasn’t been updated since 2003, leaving us unable to receive files from the Windows crowd, although we can still send them.

All You Can Chat

Your parents use AIM, all of your coworkers are on MSN Messenger, your old college roommate has a Yahoo Messenger account, and your brother, the open-source fanatic, refuses to even consider logging on to anything other than Jabber. You need an all-in-one program that allows you to log on to multiple chat services at once so you can chat with everyone.

Adium X 0.75 (   ), from Adam Iser, Fire 1.5.1 (   ), from Epicware, and Proteus 4.10 (   ), from Defaultware, all let you access your AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, or Jabber accounts from a single application. These programs don’t support audio or video chats, but for text-only chats, they make great alternatives.

All three programs are easy to set up and run; each automatically imports your contacts from the four major chat applications (including iChat AV) and organizes your buddy lists into your existing categories. Both Adium X and Fire are free, while Proteus is $15.

Although they’re similar, each program has its own strengths. Both Fire and Adium X alert you when you receive a new e-mail message in your Yahoo or Hotmail account. Adium X and Proteus can display the song you’re listening to in iTunes as your user status. Proteus alone supports SMS forwarding, allowing you to forward incoming messages to your cell phone or PDA. Meanwhile, Adium X lets you take a snapshot of yourself with your Web cam to use as a buddy icon.

None of these programs are perfect, however. Adium X doesn’t support blocking, so you can’t blacklist problem users. Fire had trouble with transferring files—both sending and receiving. Proteus did better, but still had a few file-transfer issues, and it occasionally launched iChat when it received a new message from an AIM user.

Overall, all three applications are top-notch. But Adium X was the easiest to use for file transfers, customizing the look-and-feel of the chat experience, and adding accounts.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

Since all but one of these IM applications are free, there’s no purchase decision to make. But free or not, some of these programs outshine the others. If you prefer to use the AIM service (say, if you have an AOL account or want access to those chat rooms), iChat AV—not the AIM software client—will be the best choice for you. I don’t recommend Yahoo or MSN Messenger unless you need to use Yahoo Messenger’s video-chat capabilities to talk with Windows users or other Yahoo Messenger users. So if you have an account with Yahoo or Microsoft, you’re better off with one of the all-around chat clients: Adium X, Fire, or Proteus.

Using AOL Instant Messenger, you can group your buddies into categories.MSN Messenger embeds unwelcome ads in your chat experience.iChat AV’s Connection Doctor automatically establishes the best picture and sound for each audio or video chat.Yahoo Messenger video chats are one-way only, with no sound.
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