Microsoft MSN 8

  • Editors' rating
    7.8 Very good

Pros

  • More customisable interface
  • fully functional email client
  • junk mail filters
  • parental access controls.

Cons

  • Still misses a lot of spam
  • parental controls are flawed
  • shared browsing is more annoying than useful.

You’d better get used to Microsoft Network's rainbow-hued butterfly -- you'll be seeing a lot of it over the next few months. Microsoft is hoping that a massive marketing push and a raft of family-centric features will transform MSN 8 into an AOL killer.

Installing MSN 8 from CD is a 15-minute affair (you can also download the package from the MSN Web site). You follow the prompts to fill out a half-dozen screens for your Microsoft Passport account, which is a requirement for using the service. Unlike in the US, where it still operates as an ISP, MSN in the UK is a ‘bring your own access’ service: it costs £6.99 (inc. VAT) a month (including two months free), or £59.99 (inc. VAT) a year, on top of any ISP subscription you currently pay. Microsoft is also teaming up with BT Broadband to offer an MSN 8/ADSL package from £27.99 (inc. VAT) a month. The new MSN 8 browser looks much like its predecessor but with a few subtle, positive changes. MSN replaces its column of static menu options on the left-hand side of the screen with a movable, resizable window called a Dashboard, which displays local weather, stock prices, news and more. You can see at a glance how many new messages you have, and view your browsing history by clicking a down-arrow -- all small but welcome improvements. You can also, finally, minimise the large, cartoonish toolbar that sits above Explorer's main page, dramatically increasing your screen space. The streamlined interface easily trumps AOL's jumble of overlapping windows. If you run into trouble, MSN offers phone support between 8am and 9pm Mondays to Fridays, and from 9am until 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays. We found the phone support to be helpful and quick. MSN also offers help via email and online chat, but we found the latter to be patchy -- one wrong answer and a disconnection, followed by an agonisingly long but reasonably helpful session.

Email
After a prolonged adolescence, MSN's email client has finally grown up. You can create up to nine mailboxes, each with 10MB of storage (for, say, each member of the family); import address books for each one; preview messages; and sort messages by sender, subject, or date. MSN 8 also makes it easy to add photos, art, funky fonts and other window dressing to each message, if you're into that sort of thing. More importantly, MSN has finally added spam-fighting capabilities. Microsoft now filters spam at the server level, blocking many messages before they reach your in-box. MSN 8 also provides customisable filters inside its software to separate potential junk mail from the stuff you want. Unfortunately, we found the in-box filters wanting, catching only about a third of the 40 junk test messages we sent. By contrast, utilities such as McAfee's SpamKiller or Sunbelt Software's iHateSpam typically catch between 80 and 90 percent of unwanted mail.

Parental controls
MSN 8 offers sophisticated new parental controls. As with AOL, you pick one of four age settings for each member: at the strictest setting (age nine or under), children must obtain permission before exchanging mail with strangers, entering a chat room, downloading a file or accessing all but a handful of Web sites. A unique feature lets parents grant permission by filling in a box on the child's screen or responding to email; parents can also obtain weekly reports detailing their child's online activity. MSN's site blocking works well enough on the surface, but like most content filters, it's not foolproof. For example, at the strict setting, we had to get permission to use Google; but once we got there, we were able to view a page of results on any kind of search, including the word ‘sex’, and access news stories of a mature nature. By comparison, AOL simply forbids users under age 16 to access Google. Overall, MSN's controls are a partial solution at best.

Extra software
Your subscription also buys you access to simplified, online versions of Microsoft’s PictureIt! (Photos Plus) and Encarta, along with MSN Calendar. You get 100MB of online storage for your photos. MSN also now allows shared browsing, where you can dial up a friend via Windows Messenger and surf the same site on both screens. It's a clever trick, but wrestling for control of the mouse cursor can quickly get annoying. Aside from friend-to-friend technical support, we can't see much use for it. At £6.99 a month, MSN 8 should appeal to Internet newcomers, parents and the AOL-averse.

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Hello, I'm the Reviews Editor at ZDNet UK. My experience with computers started at London's Imperial College, where I studied Zoology and then Environmental Technology. This was sufficiently long ago (mid-1970s) that Fortran, IBM punched-card machines and mainframes were involved, followed by green-screen terminals and eventually the pers... Full Bio