- New IMVironment themes turn the chat window into fun interactive screens
- video chat works in every version of Windows since 95
- tightly integrated with the Yahoo portal and its content.
- Video windows clutter the screen
- old skins don't display properly
- consumes more RAM than before.
Don't hold Yahoo Messenger's face against it. Although its new IMVironments -- Yahoo's cheesy name for themed interfaces -- are nothing more than a marketing gimmick, this IM client remains solid where it counts: underneath. Yahoo Messenger is easier to use than ICQ, includes more sophisticated features (such as video chat) than AOL Instant Messenger, and tops MSN Messenger by virtue of its built-in video. If you want smooth-as-silk video chat, only Windows Messenger, the IM bundled with Windows XP tops Yahoo. Choose this IM if you don't need the chameleonlike qualities of the multiservice Trillian.
Messenger's main display is as stark as it's always been. But we did notice a few distinctive new touches in 5.0, especially the tiny icons that sit beside each buddy's name to show his or her status, such as 'I'm available' or 'Out to lunch'. Otherwise, prepare yourself for more of the same old stuff. For example, Messenger still lets you organize your pals into groups in order to send several members the same message. You can also set Messenger to display only those buddies who are currently online (to trim the list if you have a lot of IM contacts) and to locate friends to add to your buddy list with a simple search tool. In general, we found Yahoo much easier to operate than ICQ (with its lengthy, detailed menus), but some tasks are still a real pain. For instance, it took us a long time to dig through the help file to figure out how to delete a group.
If you're put off by Yahoo's sterile interface, give the program a face-lift. Simply apply a skin to change Yahoo's background image, toolbar and status icons (ICQ and Trillian can also do this). You'll find hundreds of additional skins for download at sites such as Theme Depot.
Mac or Linux users needn't bother. Although former Messenger versions come in flavours for both of those OSs, version 5.0 is exclusively for Windows. You'll have to give up a bit more memory than before, too. Messenger 5.0 eats 3.4MB of RAM -- about the same amount that AOL's client does.
Although Yahoo's main window is pretty plain, the program has gone to great pains to spice up its chat interface. Messenger's new IMVironments range from the generic, such as a fish tank, to branded images from the movie Monsters, Inc., the rock band Garbage and even Nintendo's Super Smash Bros Melee video game. Only three IMVironments come bundled with Messenger; you must download the other 15 separately from Yahoo's site. In order to use an IMVironment, both you and your buddy must use Messenger 5.0 and have the same IMVironment (a request by either puts it up on both parties' screens). If you don't have the requested IMVironment, Yahoo doesn't notify you. You have to rely on your pal to tell you, then you must download it.
But no matter how snazzy they look, IMVironments are window dressing (pun intended), and they're aimed directly at kids -- it's no coincidence that they're heavy on popular characters such as Mario, Hello Kitty, Snoopy and Garfield. Some of the IMVironments, such as the one that puts your typed words inside a 'Dilbert' comic strip, are just cute; others turn instant messaging into a kind of interactive playground. The Yahoo Fighter IMVironment, for instance, lets you play an animated version of rock-paper-scissors. Many IMVironments, though, are blatant marketing and advertising tools. For example, the Monsters, Inc. IMVironment sports links to the movie's online trailer, and the Super Smash theme includes screenshots of the video game and its characters. Although these IMVironments are fun at first, the charm wears off quickly.
Video for everyone in Windows Fortunately for Yahoo, there are plenty of other reasons to pick this client. Messenger lets you invite up to nine buddies to a round-table chat, transmit and receive files, and set up peer-to-peer file sharing with friends. You can send messages to offline buddies (who get them the next time they log on) and invite others to Yahoo chat rooms from within Messenger. What's more, because your contact list resides on Yahoo's servers -- something ICQ added only recently -- you can chat from any machine that has Messenger installed, or, on any browser-equipped computer, use the Java-based Yahoo Pager. Messenger also alerts you when you have Yahoo mail waiting.
More importantly, Messenger provides real-time voice and video chat, something only Windows Messenger (the XP version) can match. Audio and video setup is simple; just run the Auto Setup Wizard (in the help menu on Messenger's main chat window) and follow the five easy steps to test your speakers, microphone and connection. But as much as we like Yahoo's audio and video tools, they're not perfect. During video transmissions, Messenger clutters the screen with four windows: your image, your buddy's, the typing/talk screen, and Messenger's main interface. Plus, video is jerky, and the audio and video don't sync up correctly. In our informal tests using a 64Kbit/s ISDN connection, Microsoft's Windows Messenger displays much smoother video and tightly synchronized audio and video.
That said, this client is the logical choice for anyone who relies on the Yahoo portal. Tabs at the bottom of Messenger's window display abbreviated versions of Yahoo's news, your stock portfolio, local weather, auctions and the like. Messenger also makes it easy to access Yahoo Conversations, the portal's live-chat feature, where you can initiate and join real-time conversations on news, personal, and sports topics. Every news story on Yahoo, for example, has a Conversations link; just click to start a discussion with other Messenger users.
Yahoo Messenger still has some holes and rough edges. Its security lags behind ICQ's; you can't make yourself invisible to some pals while telling others that you're online and available. And support remains substandard, with only online help and informal user-to-user Q&A pages. We couldn't even find an email address for Yahoo support.
Yahoo Messenger 5.0 doesn't offer anything revolutionary. But if you want to hold video chats in any version of Windows (except XP), don't pass this up.