MSN Messenger 4.6, the newest edition of Microsoft’s instant messenger, boasts some snappy enhancements over last year’s version, but they aren’t enough to convince power users to ditch ICQ or video enthusiasts to skip Yahoo Messenger. Or, for that matter, keep you from downloading Trillian if your buddies live on several IM services. Unless you’re a novice who uses just one IM service, don’t bother downloading this client until it steals video chat from its XP cousin, Windows Messenger.
Messenger 4.6 handles back-and-forth banter as well as any IM client does, and you can use it virtually anywhere. Like AIM and the all-new ICQ, MSN stores your contacts on its servers, not just on the local machine. As long as you’re sitting in front of a Messenger-equipped machine — Microsoft doesn’t yet offer a Web-based IM tool — you can get at your buddy list. Nor is there much here that you didn’t see in version 4.5: Microsoft claims 4.6 has better support for PC-to-phone calls, but frankly, we didn’t notice any changes. If you’re already using MSN 4.5, don’t bother upgrading.
You’ll find standard IM fare here: you can chat one-on-one, invite up to four others to a group conversation, and send and receive files. Unlike power clients such as ICQ, Messenger doesn’t automatically save a text file transcript that you can refer to later — you have to choose File > Save yourself — nor does it keep a complete history of all your conversations. And its search skills are lame; you can only look for buddies in the Hotmail Member Directory, so if they’ve not put themselves in that database, you’re out of luck.
Microsoft makes up for Messenger’s onscreen shortcomings by packing in mobile options. The client lets you send text messages to MSN Mobile users’ cell phones and pagers, notifies you when messages arrive in your Hotmail in-box, and now takes advantage of .Net Alerts. The latter is a Web-based service that you can use to stay on top of everything from sports scores to online auctions, courtesy of several sites, which include eBay, Ubid, CarPoint and MSN Music. The .Net Alert connection is important, since Microsoft is banking on this technology to bring in big money eventually. Messenger is obviously a crucial component in Microsoft’s new .Net strategy; it’s the only way for users of Windows 95 and later versions to get these alerts. Windows XP is .Net Alerts-ready out of the box, thanks to its tightly integrated Windows Messenger client.
For the moment, .Net Alerts are as much trick as treat, since few companies or Web sites offer them, but that will change as more non-Microsoft businesses use them. Imagine, for instance, your anti-virus software maker flashing you an alert as soon as a virulent virus is identified so that you can update your definitions ASAP. We wouldn’t be surprised if, in a year, .Net Alerts were prevalent enough to make Messenger a necessity. Remember, though, that .Net is all Microsoft, so you won’t see its alerts dropping into non-Microsoft IM clients.
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MSN Messenger 4.6 still can’t do video, unlike its Windows XP-only counterpart Windows Messenger, but you can conduct PC-to-PC audio calls and PC-to-phone calls. Caveats abound, however. For example, if your PC is protected by, say, ZoneAlarm or Norton Personal Firewall, you can’t talk to others outside the firewall. You can get around this limitation by manually configuring your firewall for Messenger (see this solution on Microsoft’s tech support site). And Messenger no longer offers free PC-to-phone calls; instead, you must sign up with a pay service such as Net2Phone or Dialpad.
MSN Messenger 4.6’s security standards remain unchanged from version 3.0, which means they’re still not on a par with ICQ. You can’t make yourself invisible to particular buddies, nor can you limit file-transfer privileges to certain pals. But you can demand that others get your permission before they add you to their contact lists, block all buddies from seeing that you’re online, and instantly access a list of everyone who has added you as a pal. If you don’t recognise users on that list, you can quickly block them from contacting you or seeing your online status — a very cool trick that should be standard on all IMs.
Support is standard Microsoft: you’ll find excellent online support, including searchable databases and organised FAQs. However, phone support is expensive.
MSN Messenger 4.6 is the best version of Microsoft’s IM yet, but it hasn’t come far enough to blow Yahoo Messenger or ICQ out of the water. Once Microsoft adds video chat (like XP’s Windows Messenger), though, we’ll be singing a different tune.