Back in the day, the IM client you used said a lot about what sort of internet user you were. Each client linked you to one IM network, and limited who you could chat with. AOL/AIM was typically for AOL users, and therefore novices. MSN Messenger was for a slightly more serious user (until emoticons took over there too)… while ICQ was for chat addicts, open to talking to new people in Slovakia or Kenya at the drop of a hat. But since most chat clients now support multiple networks, users not only have more choice when it comes to IM: they can also avoid being tarred with the AIM brush, an indignity no internet user should ever have to suffer.
So with all the choice now open to users, which are the best and the worst of the chat clients? Well for my money, one of the worst is Yahoo! Messenger 9, currently still in Beta. Its latest incarnation is rammed with advertising without much in the way of innovation, and feels bloated and garish because of it. Hot on its heels (as usual) is Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger, which has more or less the same features as Yahoo!’s offering, with very slightly less in the way of corporate branding (though this will doubtless be corrected soon!). Almost as bad as MSN, and lacking most of its features, is the decrepit AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). The way this client’s voice and video chat features have been tacked on make them at time difficult to find and harder to use. AIM is, in this software reviewer’s opinion, the worst of the popular chat clients: to be avoided at all costs.
But enough negativity. There are plenty of decent IM programs out there which are completely free (including no ads), easy to use and easy on the eye. Spark IM, an open-source Jabber client won’t play very well with your Yahoo! or Hotmail account (if you still have one!) but if you have a Google Mail/Gmail account, you’ll be able to connect to the Google Talk network with Spark. But if you’re connecting to Google Talk, why not just use the big G’s own client? It’s lighter on features than other apps but what it does, it does well. It also has a clean, attractive interface and eschews emoticons: two major plus points. Google Talk also has one of the most reliable VoIP services I’ve ever tested and it saves all of your IM chats to your Gmail account. The one major flaw? No Mac version, which means I have to keep using the buggy Skype for Mac. Google: please pull your finger out and add video and a Mac version. Thanks.
The truth is that none of the current crop of chat clients is perfect. But if you’re on a Windows PC and you’re not easily swayed by what emoticons come with the client (James, I’m looking at you); Google Talk is the one I’d recommend.