Even though AOL is no longer as pre-eminent on the web as it once was, its IM client still still retains prominence in the United States market. Like Microsoft and Yahoo, the other major IM providers, AOL is moving into the arena of social networking. To this end it has introduced its Lifestream aggregator, as well as integration with both Twitter and Facebook. AIM 7.3 succeeds reasonably well with its attempts at integration, and the newly-added ability to chat with Facebook friends from within AIM is a welcome addition. However, in comparison to the feature-rich products offered by some competitors,for example Windows Live Messenger, it falls rather short.
The buddy list in AIM 7.3 fits a lot of features into a relatively small space. It now, like Windows Live Messenger, shows updates to social networks, as well as the familiar list of online contacts. However, it hides said updates in another tab contained within the already-narrow window of buddy lists. Yet another tab, captioned ‘Me’, displays what other buddy lists you’re on, as well as your Lifestream settings and whether IM mobile forwarding is activated. As far as online consoles go it’s not too bad, and it also gives you the capability to comment on posts made by your friends on Facebook.
As with both Yahoo Im and Windows Live Messenger, you can customize the AIM window using different colors and themes. This proves to be quite useful when it comes to quickly identifying your friends. The font size for the list, however, is pretty small and is not customizable, though you do see expanded info as well as a larger profile image when you mouse-over an entry.In comparison, Windows Live Messenger gives you an expanded list of options on mouse-over, such as options to send videos or IMs, and Digsby gives you both expanded options and an expanded view.
There are ads displayed underneath the buddy list in AIM, but they’re not overly distracting. The buddy list convenient snaps into place on the edge of your screen if you drag it there, which neither Yahoo IM nor Windows Live Messenger do. Digsby, on the other hand, goes even a step further, by also giving you a slide-way hiding option – when you move the mouse to the edge of the screen, it comes back out of hiding.
There are a couple of problems with AIM’s buddy list – for instance, it doesn’t have the ability to sort contacts by frequency of conversation, which Yahoo IM, Trillian and Digsby all have. Nor is there the option to go into stealth mode by appearing invisible to specific contacts, which Yahoo IM and Windows Live Messenger both have. The closest option is to completely block a contact, which isn’t particularly satisfactory.
A nice feature is that you can simultaneously log out of all your devices running an instance of AIM, simply by typing ’1′ into the chat field to the AOL System Message which notifies you if you are logged on from multiple devices. Since you aren’t automatically logged out on one device when you log in on another, you can keep multiple instances going on different devices.
It’s easy to add contacts from AIM and ICQ and start chatting right away. There are wizard-driven methods to import contacts from other services such as Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, but these require your buddies to set up AIM accounts. The only other service that you can interact with directly is Facebook chat, though that is arguably the most important one. To get all services on a single app, though, you’ll have to look to Trillian, Meebo or Digsby.
AIM’s conversation windows are presented in clear tabs, which are conveniently arranged. The one annoyance is that the chat area is static and not scalable. A nice feature, though, is that if both chat window and buddy list are minimized, an incoming message will pop up a notification at the bottom of your screen.
Video chats are easily launched by clicking the appropriate icon in the chat window. Quality of video and audio are obviously very dependent on your connection. And a nice innovation unique to AIM is the Blast List, which lets you send out invitation to contacts to become participants in your group.
AIM also has apps available for mobile devices such as the Android, iPhone, iPad and Blackberry.
If you are already familiar with AIM, then AIM 7.3 is a pretty good upgrade. The multimedia capabilities and tabbed windows are a definite bonus, and the ability to interact with Facebook users is particularly attractive. Unfortunately the lack of certain key elements, such as interoperability with MSN/Windows Live Messenger, keep it out of the very top rung of IM products.