Despite AOL’s fall from internet prominence, its instant messaging client still holds the lion’s share of the U.S. market. Like the other big IM providers Microsoft and Yahoo, AOL has gotten into the social networking game with its Lifestream aggregator, and with Facebook and Twitter integration. AIM 7.3 does a decent job at this aggregation, and the new ability to chat with Facebook friends inside AIM is great, but the app still falls short when compared to the features offered by competing IM clients such as Windows Live Messenger.
The Buddy List
AIM 7’s buddy list packs a lot into a small space. Like Windows Live Messenger, it now shows social networks updates (in addition to the traditional list of online contacts), but it hides the updates in a second tab located within the narrow buddy list window. A third tab called “Me” shows how many other people’s buddy lists you’re on, whether you’ve activated mobile IM forwarding, and your Lifestream settings. It’s a decent online console, and you can even comment on friends’ Facebook posts and have them show up on the social network.
Like Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo IM, AIM lets you dress the window in different themes and colors. Unlike Digsby, Windows Live, and Yahoo messengers, AIM’s client doesn’t let you choose a bigger size for your buddies’ entries in the buddy list windows. In the competition, this ability helps quickly visually identify your buddies. The font size for the list is quite small and non-configurable. You do, however, see more buddy info and a bigger profile picture when you roll the mouse over an entry. For comparison, Windows Live Messenger shows a list of options when you roll the mouse cursor over an entry, such as Send IM, Send a video message, and View social updates. Digsby brings the best of both, showing the bigger picture and giving users the action choices.
There are ads positioned at the bottom of AIM’s buddy list, but they aren’t too distracting—they’re similar to those on Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo IM. When you drag the buddy list to the edge of your screen, it conveniently snaps into place, an ability not found in Windows Live Messenger or Yahoo IM. Digsby (which has no ads) also snaps to the side, and even goes beyond this with a slide-away hiding option—it reappears when you push the mouse to the edge where it’s hiding.
I like that AIM 7.3 can log out of all your other devices that are running instances of the service. Just type “1” into the chat field to the AOL System Message contact when it contacts you to let you know you’re signed in from multiple locations. If you don’t, it you can remain signed in from multiple locations. The fact that AIM doesn’t automatically log you out from a previous session when you begin a new one on another device means that you can keep multiple devices say a PC and a phone logged on at the same time. Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo IM, on the other hand, will automatically sign you out from one location when you sign into another.
You can easily add buddies from AIM and ICQ and start chatting with them immediately. You can also go through a wizard-and-invitation scheme to import buddies from other accounts like Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail, but they’ll have to have or create AIM accounts. The only service aside from AIM and ICQ that the client interacts with is Facebook chat, which is a big one. But you still can’t use the AIM client to chat with MSN or Yahoo buddies directly. If you want all services in one app, look to Digsby, Meebo (free, ), or Trillian.
AIM 7.3’s conversation windows use clear tabs, which you can arrange on the top of the IM window, or along the side. The simple presentation shows your buddy’s picture on the left, with icons for viewing his Lifestream, starting a group chat, sharing pictures and files, and starting video and audio chat under the image. Frustratingly, the chat area still isn’t resizable, something I’ve complained about for years. There are cases where having more space in your typing area makes sense; for example if you’re cutting and pasting a paragraph you want to collaboratively edit via AIM—something that happens all the time here at PCMag.com. Pretty much every other IM client lets you resize the text sending area; the omission in AIM is disappointing.
Like Digsby and Yahoo IM, AIM 7.3 pops a notification at the bottom of your screen when you receive a message but have the chat window and buddy list minimized—a handy trick that saves you from having to open the chat window if it’s something frivolous.
Video and Audio Chatting
You can easily start a video chat with your buddy by clicking the movie camera icon in the chat windows. Video in AIM 7.3 hasn’t reached the level of Windows Live Messenger or Skype’s HD video chat, but it works well enough. Audio, too, sounded crisp on fast Internet connections with good VOIP headsets better than a landline on PCMag’s connection, in fact. Of course, your results will depend on your broadband connection
One innovation all AIM’s own is the AIM Blast list. From the AIM Blast website, you invite contacts to become participants in your group. Any IM sent to the group name goes out to all participants. A group administrator can be designated as the only one allowed to send IMs to the group, which makes sense for a quick notification system. It’s almost like a “push” version of Twitter (free, ). Another flavor of this is the SMS Blast Group, which is even better for teams that aren’t always in front of their PCs.
As the prevalent instant messaging service in the U.S., AIM hasn’t limited itself to just computers; it also offers apps for Android, Blackberry, Apple iPad ($629, ), iPhone 4 ($199, ), and Windows Mobile. The iPhone app, one of the first to employ push notifications, does a good job at delivering all the AIM features including the social network aggregation and Facebook chat. It also organizes your chats and buddies well, though I prefer Meebo’s app since it shows all my IM services.
One final kvetch: about AIM 7.3 is that I found its Web-based, search driven help not very useful; it seldom found the information that I was seeking. I miss the days when software was released with actual, installed, specific help, rather than being a Web search of anything in the company’s database.
If you and your friends or coworkers live in AIM as many do you could do far worse than to use the latest version. Its tabbed windows and multimedia capabilities make it a worthy competitor to the other big IM apps. The ability to chat with your Facebook friends and keep up with their activities and updates on that and several other social networks only adds to its luster. But no interoperability with the world’s largest IM base MSN/Windows Live Messenger (AIM leads in the U.S., but not worldwide), lack of HD video, and less overall slickness and customizability keep AIM 7.3 out of the top tier of instant messaging products, despite its popularity.