One IM to rule them all--wherever you are | The Download Blog - CNET Download.com

One IM to rule them all--wherever you are

The pros and cons of your favorite mobility-lovin' multinetwork IM apps.

Editor's note: This is Part Two of a two-part series on multinetwork IM clients. Don't worry, we haven't forgotten about all-in-one desktop chatting.

All-in-one IM clients have much to offer the instant messaging butterfly. They organize your contacts from multiple networks while enabling customizations, plug-in support, and familiar emoticons. However, desktop chatting isn't always the best solution for the jet-set crowd.

Users who work off multiple computers and tire of downloading déjà vu could opt for browser-based chat, while the handheld-dependent might prefer a sturdy third-party IM client to replace a weak, nonnative browser or the single-network IM most compatible with their device (for instance, Pocket MSN for Windows Mobile users,).

Meebo
Networks: Windows Live/MSN, ICQ, Yahoo, Jabber, Google Talk
Pros: Extensive browser and platform support
Cons: Limited emoticons, no file transfer, no new message notification
Extras: Web site widget capabilities

You don't have to be a registered Meebo user to enjoy the benefits of online chat--you can log into six separate networks from Meebo's site--but it is the best way to chat across all your networks online. Meebo makes it easy with browser support for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera 9, Slimbrowser, Safari, and Sea Monkeys on computers running Windows, Mac, and Linux.

After signing on, you can pop the buddy list and chat windows out of the browser and use them like desktop chat clients--at least with Firefox. The pop-up feature was permanently blocked on Internet Explorer despite adding three Meebo.com addresses to my white list and numerous restarts. On Opera, the client popped out, but remained bound to the browser window.

Chat windows are actually size-formatted browser windows, so they're grouped with your browser windows in your computer's task bar. If your browser supports tabs, IM links open in a new tab in the chat window--this will delight some users and irritate others. (I'm split right down the middle.) Conversations are logged by default, keeping a running tab of your past conversations when you log on anew, but you can clear the log with a few button clicks.

The preferences are pretty basic, albeit functional and intuitive. Users can customize text format and color, though some buddies couldn't see the formatting. Meebo also has a group chat function and 20 default emoticons, most of which my buddies' networks could interpret.

There's no flashing message notification system with Meebo in Firefox, which makes keeping track of conversations tough if you're a Mozilla devotee like me. I was constantly checking in to see if my buddies were writing me. A plus point, however, is Meebo's embeddable MeeboMe chat widget (review), which opens a communication portal between you and your site visitors.

Trillian Astra
Networks: Windows Live/MSN, Yahoo, Google Talk, ICQ, IRC, AIM, MySpace IM, Bonjour (previously Rendezvous)
Pros: Stylish, full-service, behaves like a desktop chat app
Cons: It's still in development and you have to register for the alpha trial. The anticipation is killing us!
Extras: Widgets support

Although Trillian Astra, the much-anticipated Web-based follow-up to Cerulean Studios' popular Trillian instant messenger, is still only available to registered testers, the Trillian Astra Web site and CNET's Webware.com keeps us apprised of the developments, and they sound delicious. Astra is reputed to have sleek, customizable skins; an independent buddy list; chat that floats, widget-like, above the screen; RSS newsfeed capabilities; and widgets like Flickr that snap into the client.

Webware.com has plentiful news coverage, including Josh Lowensohn's hands-on review of Trillian Astra's alpha release.

IM+
Networks: AIM/iChat, ICQ, Windows Live/MSN, Yahoo, Google Talk, Jabber, MySpace IM
Pros: Tabbed chatting, intuitive message notification
Cons: Steep price tag
Extras: Vary by mobile device

Finding a reliable third-party chat program that works seamlessly on most handhelds is rare. Rarer still, IM+ from Shape Services comes with moderate embellishments. Tabbed chatting, intuitive message notification, and message history are perks. The attractive, uncluttered interface--populated with easily accessible buttons and emoticons--is essential for navigating the handheld's relatively small screen size. I found the side arrow scroll tab easy and convenient.

Additional functionality varies by device, with file transfer support for BlackBerry devices running on OS 4.2 and up, and a plug-in that displays your log-on status on the start screen for Windows Mobile. The $40 and $50 cost for a full license (platform dependent) seems steep, but on the plus side, you'll be charged for your overall Wi-Fi time, not an accumulating price per message.

Learn more about on-the-go chat options and multinetwork instant messengers for your desktop in the video with CNET News.com's Neha Tiwari, and in Part One of the One IM to rule them all blog post.

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