IM tools for the chattering class

E-mail may still be the Web's killer app, but instant messaging is a close second. These six IM programs offer slightly different features with one thing in common--they're all multiprotocol and work to keep your chatting under one interface.

Digsby's buddy list.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Even though it's been around almost as long as the modern Web, instant messaging is still a great way to send short communication bursts without tying your ear to a telephone. But with great utility comes buckets of options: Do you use Yahoo IM? AOL IM? MSN? Google Talk? ICQ? What do you do if your parents are on one service, but everybody at your office uses a second, and your friends are all on a third?

Nobody wants to be logged in to half a dozen different chat programs simultaneously, which is where multiprotocol apps come in, to free up resources and streamline your experience by presenting a single interface for managing your contacts, regardless of their preferred networks.

In this collection we show off several of the best multiprotocol chatware apps around, some of which have portable versions that you can carry on a USB key. Google, AOL, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ, and others are one and the same to these helpful apps. To keep things fair, I'm presenting the programs in alphabetical order.

With so many ways to network and socialize online, you may find it difficult to keep track of everything. Digsby promises to help keep chat, e-mail, and social-networking conversations in one convenient place, but it's still in beta and not without its flaws. It supports AIM, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Google Talk, and Jabber for IM; Gmail, MSN, Yahoo, AOL, IMAP, and POP for e-mail; and LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter for social networking.

Miranda IM's buddy list and status options, with Google represented by Jabber.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The contact list appears as a skinny rectangular box, with clear controls to add accounts to get started. From there you'll find a menu of IM and e-mail programs, and multiple social-networking sites. When selected, each simply asks for your log-in and password and connects to the system. Your various programs are displayed, with IM buddy icons separate from e-mail and social-networking e-mails. You can reorganize contacts regardless of network. Digsby is known for being sluggish, and although there have been vast improvements in this area, it doesn't have the best response times.

An unofficial portable version is also available, but many users have had significant problems installing it.

An interface refresh wouldn't hurt Miranda IM, but it makes up for the lack of pizazz by supporting most IM programs in one fully customizable package. It's got an older build for Windows 95, 98, and Me users, and comes in a portable version, too. Miranda supports 29 chat protocols, including AIM, Gadu-Gadu, ICQ, IRC, Jabber, MSN, Yahoo, Google, MySpace, QQ, Skype, Twitter, and iChat, and allows you to manage the personal information for all your accounts from one central control panel.

Palringo's buddy list can include Facebook chat contacts.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Miranda IM's plain, gray instant-messaging window offers just the basics for typing and viewing messages. Text formatting options, emoticons, and other features can be added via plug-in. While this won't appeal to many people, if you're looking for a stripped-down application with features that can be built out only as you need them, Miranda is the strongest option. One plug-in even customizes where messages from a specific user appear on your monitor, and another tweaks hot keys.

Where Miranda's appeal is in being an IM kit with a multitude of Frankensteinian options, Palringo's strength lies in its portability across mobile platforms. It's available for your desktop as well as iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and other handhelds, and it supports MSN, AOL, Yahoo, Google, ICQ, Jabber, iChat and MobileMe, QQ, Gadu-Gadu, and Facebook Chat. It tends to consume a fair amount of resources, so it won't be as nimble as open-source options like Miranda or Pidgin.

Formerly Gaim, now Pidgin, this multiprotocol client offers a bit more out of the box than Miranda does--but it's still light on its feet and offers useful features like chat history and emoticons without tinkering. It, too, has a portable version. Out of the box, it supports Bonjour, Gadu-Gadu, IRC, Lotus Sametime, MySpaceIM, MSN, Novell GroupWise, AIM, ICQ, QQ, SIMPLE, SILC, XMPP clients like Jabber and Google, Yahoo, and Zephyr. Some of these, like Yahoo, are limited to the basics of chatting and file-transferring.

Pidgin's buddy list includes avatar thumbnails.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Pidgin makes plug-ins easy to access, with more than 20 packaged to be accessible but not weigh down the program. Messaging with Pidgin is simple, if frills-free. Smileys, file transfers, group chats, Buddy Pounce, and logging and time-stamping make Pidgin worthwhile, even if it lacks IP telephony and video conferencing.

Trillian 3 hasn't been updated in a long time, but it still offers a sharp interface, tabbed chatting, enhanced messaging functionality, improved file transfers, and a new Instant Lookup feature. The program offers simultaneous access to five chat clients--Yahoo, MSN, ICQ, IRC, and AIM--but lacks Google and Jabber connectivity. Trillian also eats a ton of RAM and can be sluggish even under normal usage.

There's also a beta of Trillian 4 available, code-named Astra. Currently it's free, and it's been in development for more than three years. It services multiple chat protocol, including Google, MySpaceIM, and Skype. It includes POP3 and IMAP account notifications rolled in alongside the Facebook and Web mail notices. Astra is still a chatting behemoth, but it is more nimble than its predecessor.

Trillian Astra offers an Aero theme, even in Windows XP.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

VoxOx brings two unique features to its messaging client. It's got multiprotocol chat capabilities, social-networking support, and Web-mail integration, but it also offers a telephony service that includes call encryption, mobile-to-mobile calls initiated by either SMS or via a Web site, a free personal assistant-style call forwarding service, and a system for earning minutes by watching ads or responding to surveys. It's essentially Skype crossed with Digsby.

To entice you, VoxOx offers 120 free minutes of call time to all registrants at the U.S. rate, a free U.S.-based phone number, international calling, pay-by-minute upgrade plans, voice mail, customizable hold music, video conferencing--limited to VoxOx contacts for now--two-way text messaging, e-mail-to-SMS support, and both desktop and mobile instant messaging for MSN, ICQ, AOL, Jabber, Yahoo, and Google. Users can share files up to 100MB via a generated download link that they can then share via e-mail or instant message.

VoxOx's buddy list.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

VoxOx is troubled by stability issues, and frequently the callback services don't work.

Out of these six chat clients, each one offers a different experience. The best one for you depends on your needs as a user, but one drawback they all have is that none offers the full feature set found in single protocol chat clients. Tell us about your favorites and the ones you like the least in the comments below.

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