Messenging application shootout

Like e-mail, instant messaging has become a part of our lives. We take a look at four top chat applications, all of them free.
Written by Robert Vamosi, Contributor

Like e-mail, instant messaging has become a part of our lives, at work, at home, at school, on the go -- even on our mobile phones. We take a look at four top chat apps, all of them free, and weigh the relative merits of each.
Multitasking: these days, it's a necessary part of any job and of daily life. So the ability to have a phone conversation while sending several instant messages simultaneously can sometimes make or break a business deal -- or your date for Friday night. Instant messaging is fast, convenient, and -- dare we say -- entertaining, whether you use it at work, at home, at school, on the go, or even on your mobile phone.
We looked at four leading instant messenger (IM) apps: AOL AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger, our Editors' Choice. All are free, although AOL and MSN offer additional features for a price. All are primarily geared toward casual Internet use (AOL AIM offers several business-related features as add-ons) but work acceptably in an office environment as well. In our reviews, we examined these apps' strengths and weaknesses with regard to setup and interface, feature set, and customer service.
Unfortunately, none of these chat apps allows you to talk to friends registered with other services. In other words, your AIM account can't talk to you best friend's Yahoo account -- that is, unless you use another piece of software, such as Trillian. Trillian breaks the chat app monopolies by supporting all four major IMs: AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo, aggregating your accounts on each into one interface.
If you're concerned about security risks with instant messaging, specifically about buffer-overflow attacks (a common means of penetrating PC defenses) and spim (IM spam), you could try IMsecure, a security product from the people who make the ZoneAlarm firewall. It's the only product of its kind, and it works with AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo chat apps.
Use our handy chart to compare the features and setup requirements of the Big Four chat apps.
AOL AIM 5.5 Yahoo Messenger 6.0 MSN Messenger 6.2 ICQ 4.1
Editors' rating 7.6 8.0 7.3 8.0
Registration information Asks somewhat intrusive questions Asks less-intrusive questions Asks extremely intrusive questions Asks personal information that is optional
What you can customise Backgrounds Backgrounds, skins Backgrounds Skins, backgrounds, keyboard shortcuts
Business features Lightbridge Web-based conference calling ($); WebEx Web-based video- conferencing ($) Video and voice Video, voice, and whiteboard ($) Voice and video
Works with mobile phone Yes, 2-way Yes, 2-way Yes, 2-way Yes, 2-way
Technical support E-mail (24-hour response), FAQ FAQs only Forum, e-mail, FAQ E-mail (24-hour response), FAQ
Note: $ denotes services that require additional fees.


Although it offers more business-oriented features than any other IM we reviewed, AIM 5.5 will still appeal mostly to home users.
AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) 5.5, has plenty to offer, including standard chat functions, streaming video, and online games, as well as several business-oriented extras. Its uninspired interface and wanton advertising, however, are annoying. AIM 5.5 is free, but you must register your new instant-message (IM) account with AOL before downloading the client (current AOL customers can use their existing AOL credentials, of course).
Because of AIM's overwhelming popularity, picking an unused screen name is a challenge; it took us longer to select an unused name than to actually install the software. (If you're really stuck, AOL will select a unique screen name for you.) You can download the latest release of AIM 5.5 from ZDNet's Download channel. Once registered, the 3.99MB self-installing file downloads and installs in less than five minutes.
AIM 5.5's basic interface is straightforward and now allows for multiple screen identities. Say you have one screen name at work and another screen name at home; you can now link them so that whenever you log in, both names become active; moreover, the contact list you keep for your at-work identity now becomes available at home as well. Contacts within AIM are called buddies, and lists of these contacts occupy the middle of the display, subcategorised into groups such as Family and Co-Workers. To send an IM, simply click the contact list name or the IM icon at the bottom of the display to enter the recipient's name. Unfortunately, AIM accounts won't work within other IM clients -- ironic, as AOL also owns ICQ -- but you can use software such as Trillian to mix messengers.
Unfortunately, AIM 5.5 doesn't let you customise much. You can download expressions, which are nothing more than custom wallpaper for AIM. Although the plain window interface is as attractive as Windows Notepad (that is, not very), our only serious interface complaint is the distracting banner advertising that runs across the top third of the display. A scrolling stock ticker across the bottom is also visually distracting.

The basic AIM 5.5 interface is simple and straightforward, in spite of its prominent advertising.

With a Webcam, Windows XP, and a broadband Internet connection, AIM will now send streaming video messages, à la Yahoo Instant Messenger. AOL users can also access their e-mail within AIM. AIM includes several online games; simply challenge one of your online contacts, and both scores are displayed within the AIM interface. Games cost US$19.99 each; however, many allow for periods of free play, and Reversi and Checkers are always free to play.
You can also set AIM to send messages to your mobile phone, so you can send and receive instant messages while away from your PC. If your chosen buddy has enabled the file-transfer feature, you can send and receive files via AIM. You can also visit any of the infamous AOL chat rooms for public and private conversations. When you receive a message, a system tray notification appears with the name of the sender, so a quick look will help you decide whether to respond immediately (by clicking the tray notification) or wait till later. Finally, if you're away from your home computer, AIM Express lets you access your buddy lists and send and receive IMs from any Netscape- or Internet Explorer-enabled PC.
At start-up, AIM 5.5 also gives you the option to install a fee-based business services tool. With the AOL tool installed, you can add business-quality voiceconferencing available from Lightbridge. Payment plans include 120 minutes for US$20 and up to 660 minutes for US$100. WebEx handles Web conferences of two or more people through AIM and costs 33 cents per participant per minute. AIM Identity Services further allows companies to provision screen names that follow a company's internal e-mail naming scheme, so screen names remain both professional and easy to remember.
AOL provides ample support for AIM 5.5. You'll find a comprehensive help file and a FAQ that provides detailed instructions on every feature. AOL's Web site includes links to instructions, error messages, password recovery, security FAQ, and e-mail access to technical support (our e-mail question was answered in 24 hours). Of course, your online buddies can help answer many of your basic how-to questions as well.
In a nutshell

Despite several business-oriented add-ons, AOL AIM 5.5 is a free and versatile instant messenger that's best suited for AOL home users. That said, we like Yahoo and ICQ even better. Download AOL AIM 5.5.

ICQ 4.1

ICQ, along with Yahoo Messenger, offers the most options for customisation and everyday use at home or in the office.
ICQ (literally Internet slang for I seek you) 4.1 is attractive, free, and blissfully simple to use. Unlike AIM, ICQ doesn't impose advertising, stock tickers, or other annoyances. And like Yahoo Messenger, ICQ nonetheless offers a wealth of extras (called Xtraz plug-ins) that let you customise the interface, send greeting cards, play games, or create multiuser chats. The 2.81MB download is available from ZDNet’s Download channel and takes less than five minutes to install.
Although ICQ requests a great deal of information during registration (such as your gender, date of birth, geographical location, and other personal details), it's all optional; ICQ requires only your name and a valid e-mail address. Unfortunately, ICQ accounts won't work within other IM clients -- ironic, since ICQ is owned by AOL -- but you can use software such as Trillian to mix messengers.
ICQ's interface is straightforward. Use the Add/Find button to add friends and colleagues to your list, then simply double-click the desired entry to start a message session. Emoticons and various text fonts and colours spice up your messages. You can also launch video chat, exchange files, and insert Web URLs.

ICQ's custom interface is well designed; few distractions interfere with navigation.

Whereas AOL focuses AIM on business users, the latest ICQ includes with a wealth of new creature comforts for everyday users. There's even a spell-check option. The Xtraz toolbar slides out on demand to send a greeting card, play a game, or manage your message photo or avatar.
The new interface also allows for keyboard shortcuts to preferred features, such as Ctrl+M for a new message to a selected contact, along with the ability to customise ICQ's appearance, including changing skin colours. A system tray notification announces a new message along with the photo or avatar of the sender, so a quick look will help you decide whether to respond immediately (by clicking the tray notification) or wait till later. Another feature we liked sets an alert -- a flashing birthday cake -- next to a friend's name on your contact list on that birthday; simply click the cake to open a message window with a special birthday background and a greeting card option. ICQ supports multiple users in a chat. Users running Windows XP with any Webcam can also participate in one-on-one video chat sessions with ICQ Video. ICQ is available for mobile phones. Future development should soon support foreign language character sets, but for the moment ICQ supports only English.
The ICQ site includes a comprehensive help page with extensive FAQs on topics ranging from downloading and installation to finding other ICQ users online to security and privacy issues. ICQ also accepts support questions via e-mail. ICQ responded to our test e-mail within several hours.
In a nutshell

The free, legendary chat client just keeps getting better; ICQ 4.1 is the best pick, along with Yahoo Messenger, for features and versatility. Download ICQ 4.1

MSN Messenger 6.2

Intrusive registration process and fee-based add-ons keep us from warming up to this instant messenger.
MSN Messenger 6.2 is geared toward everyday home users. Like AOL AIM, MSN Messenger's basic IM service is free, but its many add-on features, such as Pay My Bills, frequently require separate registration and fees. Just as often, they lead you to Web pages outside of the MSN Messenger interface, which can be quite annoying. Yahoo Messenger and ICQ are better IM options, but if most of your online pals already use MSN Messenger, you can download MSN Messenger 6.2 from ZDNet’s Download channel.
Our first complaint about MSN Messenger is its intrusiveness. To use MSN Messenger, you'll have to register for a free Microsoft .Net Passport account. A new account demands personal information such as gender, date of birth, and occupation. If you already have a Hotmail account, you just need to associate that account with .Net Passport. Once you've registered your new account, the 5MB download and installation process thankfully takes just a couple of minutes. MSN Messenger accounts won't work within other IM clients, unfortunately, but you can use software such as Trillian to mix messengers.
You can customise your MSN Messenger interface with themes or backgrounds. Extra features within MSN Messenger break into 10 main areas, each with its own tab. The messaging tab stays on top by default; others include alerts, extras (themes and greeting cards), stocks, travel, Xbox, shopping, games, MSNBC news, and local traffic. This basic interface is clean and well designed, but its proliferation of hyperlinks can be distracting. For example, clicking the Stocks tab opens a stock tracker, but clicking a link such as Pay My Bills opens a new Web page within your default Internet browser to an MSN bill-pay site involving paid access. There are many similar examples across

MSN Messenger, making the utility seem more like an advertisement for paid Microsoft services than a handy IM tool.

Sending an instant message simply involves highlighting an online buddy and selecting "Send an instant message" from the command menu. When you receive a message, a system tray notification appears with the photo or avatar of the sender, so a quick look will help you decide whether to respond immediately (by clicking the tray notification) or wait till later. But IMs are just one of Messenger's many communication features. MSN Messenger can also access chat rooms, send voice messages (with your computer's microphone and speakers), videoconference with Webcams, and send e-mail (a premium service at US$19.95 per year). MSN Messenger also supports some virtual collaboration tools, including application sharing and a whiteboard, which isn't available in AIM.
As with other IM products, including ICQ and Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger lets you manage your own photo or avatar; exchange files; send animated greetings (Yahoo calls these audibles); and personalise your messages with unique backgrounds, themes, and emoticons.
Support is clearly one of MSN Messenger's strengths. A comprehensive help page covers a suite of FAQs on downloading, installation, operation, and security. A detailed online manual outlines each feature, including common troubleshooting issues. You can also access the public MSN Messenger newsgroup or use a feedback form for direct e-mail assistance. You can even request remote assistance from other users.
In a nutshell

Relentless offers for premium (fee-based) services turn MSN Messenger 6.2 into a big advertisement rather than a useful communication tool. For the most free features, use Yahoo or ICQ instead. Download MSN Messenger 6.2

Yahoo Messenger 6.0

Yahoo Messenger, along with ICQ, offers the most options for customisation and everyday use at home or in the office.
Because of its many built-in features, Yahoo Messenger 6.0 is known as the Swiss Army Knife of free IM clients for Windows. To name a few, Yahoo Messenger serves up a radio, games, a stock tracker, weather, and a calendar/day planner along with regular IM, chat, e-mail, and user-management functions. If you want a lot of bells and whistles to go along with your IM and chat app, choose Yahoo Messenger. That said, it ultimately requires 11.66MB of your hard disk, more than any other IM client we reviewed. You can download Yahoo Messenger 6.0 from Download.com.
In just a few minutes, the Yahoo Messenger installer walked us through the free account registration process and also set up a toolbar button within Internet Explorer for easy access. The sleek, attractive Yahoo Messenger 6.0 interface itself is somewhat larger than those of other clients we looked at but much cleaner and better organised than AIM's. The interface is customisable with a variety of colour schemes, making it much more like ICQ.

Yahoo Messenger 6.0 offers a wealth of features well suited to everyday personal communication.

Like AIM, whenever you log in to Yahoo Messenger, whether at home or from a cafe, it will display your contact list, so you always stay in touch with friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, Yahoo Messenger accounts won't work within other IM clients, but you can use software such as Trillian to mix messengers. You can format Yahoo Messenger text messages with a wide range of font styles and emoticons, as well as audible cues to personalise your specific message; a selection of themed backgrounds, called IMVironments, lets you further customise your messages.
When you receive a message, Yahoo Messenger displays a system tray notification with the name of the sender, so a quick look will help you decide whether to respond immediately (by clicking the tray notification) or wait till later. Free conference chat lets you converse with multiple users within the same message window. Yahoo Messenger also lets you select a photo or an avatar to represent you in messages. Plus, if text isn't your thing, Yahoo Messenger supports voice chat (through the PC's microphone and speaker) and one-on-one Web video (if your PC has a Webcam). Yahoo also offers chat rooms for public and private conversations.
We were disappointed to find Yahoo Messenger's support weak, despite Yahoo's market preeminence. A help Web page does provide explanation and guidance for Yahoo Messenger's main features, but depending on your issue, you may have to dig a few levels down to find what you're really looking for. Luckily, the support site is searchable; however, we couldn't find any links to live or e-mail support within Yahoo Messenger itself.
In a nutshell

The Yahoo Messenger 6.0 is the most versatile and best free IM client we reviewed, if you can do without e-mail tech support. Download Yahoo Messenger 6.0
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