- Easy to use
- lets you access your buddy list from any computer
- new AOL Alerts pop up beside AIM's window.
- Poor security and privacy controls
- new AIM Today window eats up screen space
- lacks video chat.
AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) 4.8 (we tested a beta edition) adds a couple of new tools -- the most useful is AOL Alerts, a service akin to MSN Messenger's .Net Alerts that notifies you of the latest news, stock quotes and the like -- but it still has poor security and one of the most boring interfaces around. Plus, it doesn't do video chat (as Yahoo does). If you want to keep in touch with AOL pals, use the smaller, sharper and interoperable Trillian instead. Don't need to chat with AOLers? Then Yahoo Messenger gets our vote.
AOL Instant Messenger's look hasn't changed much over the years, and it's still just as easy to operate: AIM marks your buddies as either offline or online so that you know who's available in an instant. You can also easily start a chat with just a click, group your pals into subcategories and move contacts from one group to another. But we've grown weary of the Spartan, unattractive interface that packs ads at the top and bottom of the display. Worse, there's no way to add skins to change AIM's drab look.
AOL makes an annoying move with version 4.8: this edition grabs screen space and doesn't let go. AIM Today, a mini-AOL portal, pops up when you start AIM and snatches about two and a half times the screen space the messenger itself uses. Crammed with ads and links to AOL's content, AIM Today is nothing more than a way to advertise AOL via AIM. Thank goodness you can keep AIM Today from popping up automatically by changing a single setting (in Preferences > Sign On).
One bright spot: while AIM 4.7 works only in Windows, this IM client comes in versions for a range of other operating systems, including Mac OS (separate versions for 68K users, PowerPC people, and those using the new OS X), Linux, Palm OS and Windows CE. Only Yahoo Messenger provides as many versions.
Instead of spending so much time building AIM for so many different platforms, perhaps AOL should revamp AIM's feature set. Most of the new features you'll find in version 4.8 are humdrum. You can now get in touch with Mobile AIM users (those working on a cellphone, PDA or the AOL-branded Mobile Communicator) from your desktop display via an icon. And a right-click on any file within Windows Explorer now shows AIM Buddy and AIM Share choices on the Send To: menu, making it easier to transfer a presentation to a work buddy or share a photo with all your online pals. These are nice additions, but they're not exactly innovative.
In this latest edition, AOL mimics Microsoft's .Net Alerts initiative with its own version. You can now sign up for four types of alerts (news, sports, stocks, and weather) that notify you of changes in weather, sport scores and the like from AIM. You add to and edit these alert preferences from an AOL Web page; the actual alerts pop up in a separate window beside the messenger. We like MSN Messenger's .Net Alerts better, however, because they pop up from the system tray part of the taskbar and take up far less desktop space.
AOL also debuts Add-ins, a feature that lets you set up games and collaborative applications to launch from both your PC and your pal's. You can play Hearts with a friend, as well as use Microsoft NetMeeting for video calls and document and application sharing.