- ✓Clean, well-integrated interface
- ✓easy setup and installation
- ✓smooth Webcam chat feature.
- ✕Still not interoperable with other IM clients
- ✕audio chat wouldn't work in the beta version.
With Messenger 6, now available as a public beta, Microsoft eases into a comfortable lead -- in terms of features and quality -- over instant-messaging rivals AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo. An updated and smooth interface and fun features such as Webcam support and online gaming should make this instant messenger (IM) the office time-waster of choice. You'll even find a few productivity enhancements in Messenger 6, such as an elegant peer-to-peer file-sharing application. Not surprisingly, Messenger 6 doesn't address the biggest IM question: how to chat with users of incompatible systems, including AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and ICQ. Die-hard IMers will still have to rely on third-party software, such as Trillian, to solve that one. Here at ZDNet, we don't recommend installing beta software, but if you can hold out for the final version, MSN Messenger 6 promises to be an excellent upgrade.
Setup & interface
To get a look at Messenger 6, visit the download site and grab the 6MB setup file. Once it finishes downloading, the update from version 5 takes less than a minute, no rebooting required. New users will have to go through a few more steps and sign up for a .Net Passport. Messenger 6's interface is much richer than version 5's and makes Yahoo Messenger and AIM seem thin and wimpy by comparison. A row of icons across the top of the chat window let you invite other IMers, send files, launch your Webcam, initiate an audio conversation or invite someone to play a game. Each user is represented by a tile, which you can customise with your own photo, if you dare (if you engage in video chat -- more on that below -- your Webcam images appear in that spot). You can also change backgrounds, or skins, to suit your mood and share them with friends. Games, the Webcam capability and other new features are handily integrated into one screen, with the chat window on the left.
With version 6, MSN Messenger gets a lot more personal. You can display a mug shot or other custom tile that other Messenger users can see while you're chatting. Hook up a Logitech Webcam and a mic, and you can see video and engage in chats with your favourite buddy. The Webcam hookup worked surprisingly well in our tests, with minimal lag or latency. (Yahoo Messenger also lets you view other Webcams, but it's not as smooth or well integrated as in Messenger.) However, we couldn't get Messenger's audio chat feature to work with our other testers' firewalls -- the software is still in beta, so we expect such bugs to crawl away in the final release. You can spice up your conversations with new animated emoticons (such as smiley faces that also cry or wink) or create your own from image files on your hard drive. Likewise, you can choose from a variety of colourful backgrounds, customise your own, then share them with fellow users of version 6. You can also use Messenger 6 to play a few games, such as checkers or noughts-and-crosses -- after work, of course. All these features worked flawlessly in the Messenger 6 beta. MSN has even added features business users might appreciate. Want to share files with a colleague? Just click the Send Files button and browse your hard drive until you find the one you want -- far easier than attaching it to email, because the transfer is instantaneous and you know right away whether it's gone through. You can also transfer a batch of files at once using a feature that looks and works like a P2P file-sharing application. Uploading and downloading files with this program is fast and easy over a broadband connection, although if you break off the chat in the middle of a transfer, you'll have to start again -- it can't resume the process where you left off. Version 6 also automatically stores transcripts of each session on your hard drive -- good news for business users who need an electronic record of their communications (beware of storing months'-worth of gossip, though). You can also tell Yahoo Messenger to permanently archive conversations, but you'll have to tweak its default settings. Overall, Messenger's features have a clear edge over both Yahoo IM's and AIM's.
Service and support
Getting good (or even any) technical support for a free service is rare these days, but Messenger pulls it off admirably (of course, having the largest software company in the world footing the bill doesn't hurt). MSN subscribers can avail themselves of 24/7 free phone support; users of the free client must rely on online FAQs or send email to MSN. We called the phone line and were connected almost instantly with a techie who answered our test question. We also sent two queries via MSN Messenger's Web-based email form; both were answered correctly by a live technician (not an automated system) in less than two hours. You can't expect better service than that for a free application.