- ✓New file-sharing feature
- ✓buddies are available from any Web-enabled PC
- ✓smaller download.
- ✕Lacks innovative tools, such as built-in videoconferencing
- ✕consumes more RAM than any other IM
- ✕too difficult for beginners
- ✕still not interoperable with AOL Instant Messenger.
The latest ICQ beta, called 2001b, is pure ICQ: bloated and behind the times but crammed so full of features that it's hard to resist. 2001b adds file sharing and server-based contact lists -- goodies that are already part of other IMs, including AOL Instant Messenger. Unfortunately, it does not include Webcam support or video chat features like those in Windows Messenger or even Yahoo Messenger, and it still hogs more RAM than any other IM. Upgrade if you're already wedded to ICQ -- you'll love the ability to get to your contact list from any computer -- but if you're new to instant messaging, download Microsoft's IM or Yahoo Messenger instead. Head for Trillian if ICQ isn't the only IM service you subscribe to.
2001b's interface looks much the same as its predecessor, although a bit more streamlined. The latest version sports an easier installation -- the download file is a slimmer 4.1MB, compared to ICQ 2000's 5.1MB -- and you can now add and remove components once you've installed the program. Don't need the spelling checker? Fine: one click dumps it. One major caveat, though: 2001b runs only on Windows 95 or later. Got a Mac? You'll need to download the latest OS X or PowerMac ICQ.
The two most important additions to ICQ show up after installation. 2001b features a new Napster-like file-sharing facility that lets your 2001b-equipped buddies download anything you put in a special folder on your desktop. For those worried about security, ICQ lets you tightly control access: you can, for example, let only one friend on your list use the folder.
ICQ 2001b finally steps into the Web era, too. This version automatically copies your contact list to an ICQ server, so you can access the whole thing from any Web-enabled computer. You can also get to your pals via ICQ Lite, the Web-based version, and ICQ synchronises your contacts between the two so that you're never out-of-date. This feature is a godsend for anyone who moves between PCs -- and reason enough to justify an upgrade.
Other new features are more frosting than cake. You now can add smileys and emoticons, spell-check outbound text and send messages via ICQ, email, SMS or all of the above.
A redesigned Security And Privacy settings dialog finally collects all important settings in one place, making it easier, for instance, to accept all files sent to you via ICQ but limit chat requests to your buddies only.
ICQ also claims to automatically detect your firewall configuration -- a big boon to office workers dependent on this messenger. But we didn't see evidence of that feature: in our trials, ICQ wouldn't allow direct connections -- necessary for file transfers and some other chores -- between outsiders and users behind our corporate firewall.
This time around, ICQ holds on to its standard attractions: ICQphone (for Net calls), SMS compatibility and much better security than other IMs. But it packs in more features than clowns in a circus car, causing a small traffic jam. Just one glance at Advanced mode will send IM novices running for a simpler messenger, such as MSN Messenger or Yahoo. And ICQ chews up over 10MB of system memory -- three times more than Yahoo Messenger.
Despite all the aforementioned features, some aspects of ICQ remain distressingly passé. Other IMs have added and refined cool features such as videoconferencing and calling, but ICQ sticks with text. Worse, it's been years since AOL bought ICQ, and it still can't communicate with AIM.
When you have questions about 2001b, your only resource is ICQ's tech support site, a newly-reorganised set of FAQs, message boards and how-to articles that still lacks a search engine specific to tech support.
Don't expect any phone support; ICQ doesn't have any. Unfortunately, its email support is obviously overwhelmed. Our queries went unanswered.
Last year, we told you to grab ICQ 2000b ASAP, but the IM landscape looks a lot different now. This version is a must-have upgrade only if you're a hard-core user who needs to access your contact list when you're away from home base. Everyone else should stick with their current IM, or if they're just starting out, make a beeline for Microsoft Messenger 4.6 or Yahoo Messenger. Using several IM services on top of ICQ? Then Trillian's your best bet.