Editor's note: This is Part One of a two-part series on multinetwork IM clients. Don't worry, we haven't forgotten about all-in-one Web and mobile chatting.
There's a lot to chat about in the multiprotocol IM universe. Pidgin just debuted as a full-fledged version 2.0, replacing the much-loved Gaim. Trillian is gearing up to wow us all with its gleaming browser-based Astra version, and every day more and more plug-ins pop up to make this breed of protocol-bridging IM clients more extensible and functional.
If you're still logging into three separate chat services to contact your friends, it's time to consider these consolidated options.
Miranda IM: For Windows NT/2000/XP or Windows 95/98/Me.
Networks: ICQ, MSN, AIM, Yahoo, IRC, Jabber
Pros: One-click sign-in to IM accounts
Cons: Old-school graphics, no default emoticons, overly subtle message-alert system
Extras: Oodles of plug-ins
Miranda IM is the most basic multiservice IM client of the batch. It intersperses contacts in a long, narrow screen, and Miranda is the only client without tabbed conversations. The default graphics are amateurish by today's standards, but scads of user-generated plug-ins dress up the basic look with skins, themes, and emoticons. Security and management tools enhance the back end. As always, take care when downloading files from unknown sources.
Pidgin (beta): For Windows 2000/XP/Vista
Networks: ICQ, IRC, MSN, Yahoo, Jabber (and Google Talk), AIM, Gadu-Gadu, Simple, XMPP, and others
Pros: Useful, in-client plug-ins, conversation windows pop up
Cons: Known bugs, broken functionality related to specific IM protocols
Extras: "Buddy pounce" macro command, option to group multiple screen names under one contact
For legal reasons, the popular Gaim IM app is changing its name to Pidgin and receiving a makeover in the process. You can check out this beta version before Gaim makes its official migration. Pidgin has a clean interface and a few nice touches--like WYSIWYG character formatting, in-screen spell-check, and a plug-in that lets you color code conversations. I had some problems getting emoticons to sync, which led to some cryptic conversations involving "(8)" (another IM client's character map for a music note.) I liked some of the more complex configuration options, like auto-accepting transfer files from select users. Once again, however, I was left wishing for a bolder message notification system.
Update: Pidgin has shed its beta status and is winging out on its own as Gaim's official replacement. The official release of Pidgin 2.0 is now open for business.
imeem: For Windows 2000/2003 Server/XP
Networks: AIM, Yahoo, MSN, Google Talk
Pros: Elegant interface, fast media upload, clear contact sign-in alerts at the taskbar
Cons: Registration, session sign-in, no file transfers
Extras: Blog, displays media in status message
Not just an instant-messaging service, imeem is a social networking community geared toward visual and aural artists. In the imeem cosmos, content is king. This makes uploading media a breeze, and building out your profile as important as chatting, if not more so.
While the visual emphasis makes imeem my favorite of the chat clients to use, it lacks certain key instant-messaging features and adds a few questionable ones. Unlike other IM apps, you have to create an account before using imeem. You also have to sign in every session. The tabbed chats come in two varieties--a linear history and the more fanciful "bubble" format that associates word balloons with the speaker's buddy icon. I was disappointed that none of my contacts (all outside imeem) could see the emoticons.
Trillian Basic: For Windows 98/Me/2000/XP/Vista
Networks: AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, IRC
Pros: Tons of emoticons, dedicated file-transfer button, video and audio controls
Cons: Contacts grouped into a window by category
Extras: Audio chat, secure IM for certain protocols
Users should pay attention during Trillian's installation, or they might wind up with a toolbar and widget they hadn't expected. This massively popular all-in-one chat client is highly customizable, down to skins, themes, sound preferences, and settings for shared computer users. Spell-checking is a nice touch, as are the easily accessible multimedia controls. Less wonderful was how Trillian grouped contacts into a tabbed window per category (work, friends, other), rather than presenting all contacts in the same window.
Trillian fans can learn about Astra, the app's much-publicized Web-based update, on Webware.com.
Update: Users can group all contacts into a single chat window by editing their preferences, though the app will separate conversations by category type (e.g., "friends" in one window, "work" contacts in another).